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The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The documentary about Fred Rogers' work and philosophy inspires even more wonder about the television legend who called Pittsburgh home.




PHOTO COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor” doesn’t want you to understand Fred Rogers. Not quite.

It wants you to wonder about him.

So much of the longtime television host’s mystique is wrapped up in his idiosyncrasies, his almost otherworldly gentleness and calm. This is a guy who made us think about how to be better people — scratch that, this is a guy who made us think about how to be people, full stop. If there were a bit of biographical information that peeled back that curtain, would you want to know it?

I don’t think I would. And so “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” quite wisely, focuses more on what Mister Rogers thought than who Mister Rogers was.

The documentary by Morgan Neville, who was widely lauded for “20 Feet From Stardom,” his Oscar-winning look at some of rock’s best backup singers, is something of a biography, sure; you’ll learn the history of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the overall sweep of Rogers’ life and several tantalizing details about his mindset. But more than that, it is a document of the Philosophy of Fred, the radical peacefulness that formed the foundation for the heartfelt lessons extolled on his show — many of which remain cultural touchstones and comforts today.

Its reach is impressive. You’ll see some of the earliest recorded footage of Rogers and his creations, including the origin of the iconic Daniel Tiger puppet; you’ll see some of the first moments that Rogers visited with his young fans, incidents that proved to PBS that this peculiar, simple show out of Pittsburgh had untold influence on the minds of young Americans.

You will hear from the many of Rogers’ friends, collaborators and family members, including co-stars such as François Scarborough Clemmons and David “Mister McFeely” Newell, many of whom intimately tell stories of private moments — incidents that clearly had an impact on them that matched the power Rogers had on children watching at home.

In what is perhaps the film’s best sequence, you’ll hear about Rogers’ doubts. This isn’t an invasion of his psyche; rather, it’s an anecdote about a period of uncertainty and reflection. There’s a lesson in that, too: Even Mister Rogers had fears. Even Mister Rogers wasn’t sure of himself, sometimes.

That’s the kind of lesson that I think Mister Rogers would’ve been proud of. And I think he probably would’ve been very proud of this movie, too.

 

My Rating: 8/10
 

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