Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the new documentary about beloved children’s TV show host Fred Rogers, is much like its subject. There isn’t a lot of flash and dazzle, but it’s so warm-hearted that it’s likely to win over all but the most hard-hearted grumps.
For those unfamiliar with Mr. Rogers, the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001. The program used simple sets and addressed challenging topics with an honest, yet gentle touch. It was all anchored by the host himself. Rogers was one of those figures who seemed so patient, kind-hearted, and empathetic that people sometimes assumed there had to be a catch. But, as the interview subjects in Morgan Neville’s documentary attest, what you saw on TV was what you got in person.
As a result, those who are looking for earth-shattering revelations about Rogers may be a little disappointed. That’s not to say there is nothing new to be learned here. Rogers tried his hand at creating a program for adults, but his heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity did not translate to grown-up viewers. He had an appreciation for his crew members’ raunchy sense of humor. And even though his program was wildly successful, he had private doubts about whether he was actually making a difference.
The movie also asks whether the program could have had the same success today. When asked to make a series of TV spots after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Rogers agreed to do them, but wasn’t sure if anything he could say would resonate with a country faced with such horror. In the social media era, when people regularly engage in public eviscerations of anyone who doesn’t 100 percent agree with their beliefs, it’s easy to wonder if Rogers’ see-the-best-in-everyone attitude would be mocked or dismissed today.
Ultimately, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a reminder that consistent kindness and empathy is hard work, but it’s work we should all try to engage in.