Won't You Be My Neighbor? paints an inviting and humanizing picture of Mr. Rogers

"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."
"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."


At one point in Morgan Neville's entertaining and well-crafted documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? one of Fred Rogers' sons refers to his dad as "the second Christ" in a manner that's clearly meant to be humorous but carries some serious weight behind it. Since his death in 2003, Rogers, who created and starred in the long-running PBS children's series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, has taken on a sort of Christ-like aura, held up as an example of pure goodness and compassion in a world that often seems to be sorely lacking in both qualities.

It would be easy for Neville to merely burnish that image, to make a 90-minute collection of memes and GIFs that recycles all of the adulation that Rogers has received in recent years. It would also be easy for Neville to come in with an agenda meant to take Rogers down, to destroy the bubble of love and acceptance that he worked so hard to create during his long TV career.

But Neighbor doesn't do either of those things, even though it is largely very positive about Rogers and his work. Rather than build Rogers up or tear him down, Neville simply depicts him as a human being, a man who may have been flawed but is ultimately able to live up to almost all of the wonderful things people believe about him.

Any flaws that Neville uncovers are minor, and are vastly outweighed by all the good that Rogers did. Neville manages to humanize Rogers by exploring his thought process, the very adult reasoning and study that led him to present his show in his own specific way. The movie opens with Rogers talking about his philosophy of childhood development, and Neville demonstrates that Rogers' honest and loving approach was based equally on his religious background (as an ordained Presbyterian minister) and his intellectual background (having studied with a number of influential child psychologists).

The interview subjects — including Rogers' widow Joanne, his two sons and many of his longtime TV collaborators — are united in their praise for his methods and his apparently endless capacity for love, and despite their effusiveness, they all come off as entirely genuine. Even on issues where Rogers was slightly less than progressive at times, his friends and colleagues explain the context and evolution of his views. The movie lays out a strong case for Rogers as a positive force for change — in race relations, in funding for public broadcasting, in coping with tragedy and in many smaller (but equally important) areas.

As a movie, Neighbor rarely strays from its straightforward formula of talking heads and archival footage, and Neville isn't a particularly inventive or daring filmmaker. But as in his Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, he knows how to craft a story, to get out of the way of his subjects and let them share their insights and anecdotes. The archival footage alone makes Neighbor a worthwhile viewing experience, with its look behind the scenes at Rogers' process and the way he interacted with his crew.

Neville's one creative touch is to insert periodic animated sequences that represent Rogers' own childhood anxieties and fears, with young Rogers depicted as the Neighborhood puppet character Daniel Striped Tiger. The connection between Rogers' upbringing and his approach to children's television is a bit tenuous, but it allows Neville to explore his subject's inner thoughts as best he can, given that Rogers isn't around to be interviewed.

Toward the end of the movie, Neville asks his interview subjects to participate in an exercise that Rogers used during some of his speeches, instructing listeners to silently reflect on someone who helped them in their lives. It's basically a formula for tears, and if those moments are emotionally manipulative, well, at least they're manipulating emotions toward gratitude and compassion. That's a movie-making technique even Mr. Rogers could approve. ♦

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