Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) has crafted an exquisitely uplifting and timely documentary about the one person who, perhaps more than any other, turned television into a medium of acceptance, humanity, and education. No one who watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s inauspicious debut in 1968, amid all the turmoil of the day, could have possibly imagined what was to come during the next three decades, much less its eventual impact, but like a comforting blanket he was always there—over the course of 895 episodes.
The film begins with archival footage of a 39-year old Fred Rogers in 1967 telling us, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships—love or the lack of it.” That truism serves as not only the theme for the movie but for Rogers’ life in general. An ordained minister, Rogers left the seminary after seeing what television was offering children and knowing that he could do much better. And he did.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a far cry from the cartoon-violence shows of the late 60s like The Herculoids and The Atom, which children would watch in glazed-over delight. With a low production value and a simple (but important) message of love and understanding, the program, as Neville deftly shows us, was an instant hit with children and their parents. At one point Neville presents footage of a line several blocks long in Boston; a crowd had gathered just for the chance to see Mr. Rogers. Neville also dedicates plenty of time to examining how Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, beyond its simple yet important overall message, was timely and unflinching in tackling contemporary issues, be it the assassination of RFK or the 1986 Challenger explosion.
Alongside archived interviews and clips of Rogers himself, Neville brings us retrospective interviews with everyone from the late Rogers’ wife and grown sons to former co-stars, including David Newell (Mr. McFeeley), Francois (Officer) Clemons, and Joe (Handyman) Negri. Their remembrances run the gamut from poignant to hilarious; Neighborhood floor manager Nick Tallo, the tattooed and goateed antithesis of what you would expect of a Rogers colleague, steals the film with his candid behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Mr. Rogers left the airwaves in 2001 and passed away just two years later, leaving an utterly untarnished legacy (despite what Fox News might have you think). And Won’t You Be My Neighbor is more than a fitting tribute, it’s a timely reminder of one man’s timeless philosophy of caring and compassion.