“The Mr. Rogers Documentary” might’ve been a better–albeit more artless–title for this stirring, roundly-acclaimed film since that’s pretty much how I have to describe it to people. [Just try telling people you’ve seen “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and after a few seconds of taking in their confusion, you’ll see the awareness flood onto their faces after mentioning Mr. Rogers.] This is the film you didn’t even realize you needed right now–I was pleasantly surprised after being only partly interested before I walked into the theater–and it would shock me if it wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary.
What Works: I can’t say I remember much about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood when it was on Television, and Fred Rogers may be often type-casted as the epitome of 50’s squareness, but this movie shows how subtly subversive he truly was (and has only grown more relevant today). A staunch Republican, he nevertheless believed in universal kindness and dignity, and it’s shocking to see old clips of Rogers’s character “King Friday,” a pouty tyrant who wanted to “build a wall” to keep out any type of change. [I can’t wait to see Trumpers try to say Rogers was anti-MAGA…50 years before such a thing existed.]
In so many ways we’re watching a tonic for the toxic culture we’re engulfed in now–Rogers also believed in slowing down children’s television too, and that radical slowness and emphasis on imagination might be just what today’s children need. [I watched this doc not long before seeing the heartbreaking photo of Toys ‘R’ Us’s Geoffrey the Giraffe moving into retirement supposedly because kids don’t play as much anymore–especially not with physical toys.] It also provides real insight into the man behind the sweaters, explaining who some of his less flattering puppets were based on, clearing up some of the urban legends about him, and how he saved PBS funding at a critical time when proto-Trump Richard Nixon wanted to defund it.
What Doesn’t: The film is always careful not to tip too far into hagiography (some of Rogers later-day crankiness is detailed) but it might’ve been nice to get a little bit more personal perspective from his wife and kids–who are interviewed about the same length of time as a crotchety, blue-collar stage hand who repeatedly refers to Fred as a rich kid who could afford to be nice to people.
What I Would’ve Done Differently: Don’t make excuses not to watch this film. Even if you have no interest in Mr. Rogers or his neighborhood, you’ll find plenty of reasons to watch this great movie, and find it more than relevant.