Caught a screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at Angelika. I’ll be honest: despite its almost universally positive reception, I went into Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the cultural impact of Fred Rogers expecting something akin to Mifune: The Last Samurai—a competent enough celebration of the subject’s legacy, but nothing too revelatory or controversial.
Fortunately, while it does’t stray far from the typical “talking heads mixed with stock footage” formula, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? presents a remarkably balanced portrait of America’s favorite television personality. Yes, Mister Rogers was capable of seemingly boundless love and compassion, but he also occasionally questioned whether his efforts to enrich the lives of children actually had any lasting value in an unrelentingly cruel world (glimpsed in the film when he briefly comes out of retirement for a series of public service announcements in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks), struggled to adjust his behavior when it happened to fall short of the philosophy he preached (the evolution of his relationship with costar Francois Clemmons, whose homosexuality was a poorly kept secret, is particularly moving), and bottled up his frustration with the countless detractors that misinterpreted his core message—being “special” doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t have to work in order to attain success, but rather that every person deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, without first having to prove him- or herself “worthy.”
And humanizing the oft-deified man behind such an empowering sentiment ultimately makes it even more powerful.
[Originally written June 8, 2018.]