Even as a child watching “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”, I could sense there was something different about him, something special. At that age, and through adolescence, it was nearly impossible to define. Each 30-minute episode shared with him felt comfortable. As an adult, thoughts of his Neighborhood and Make-Believe Land were pushed back into the section of my brain reserved for other fuzzy, fond, memories such as exploring a new playground for the first time during a warm Arizona spring morning. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” takes us back to those memories and for many of us, opens our eyes to why as children we loved this unusual, sweatered man.
Regardless if you have a personal connection to Mr. Rogers or not, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an exceptional documentary. Viewed objectively, it gives us an inside look at an unusual man, a man with unrelenting drive and determination that’s usually only seen in those far less compassionate. He truly wanted to make the world a better place and knew that the hope for our future lay in the hands of the children, many who were, and continue to be, emotionally neglected. The film is expertly balanced between modern-day interviews with friends and co-workers and a surprising amount of behind the scenes footage. Too often documentaries have to rely on recollections and reenactments, but it seems there was always someone with a camera around Fred Rogers. Not only is there footage of him on set, or making public appearances, but we are gifted with glimpses into his personal life as he crafts new songs at the piano and ponders metaphors for life based on music theory.
There’s a comment in the film (and trailer) that is almost jarring when used in connection with Mr. Rogers, “He was a Radical!” That word was the last thing that came to mind when I thought about him. But as the clips began to play and I saw through adult eyes what he was doing, it soon became clear. He shared a pool with African-American Officer Clemmons during the height of racial tensions in the U.S. His first week of episodes dealt with war, immigration, and the anti-war movement. Other episodes addressed divorce, assassination, and grief. This was all during a time when most kid’s television programming consisted mostly of slapstick humor and sensory overload cartoons.
As I watched this film, to my amazement, little pockets in my memory, long forgotten, began to light up. I remembered various clips! The dead fish in the fish tank, Daniel feeling insecure and unworthy of love, Lady Elaine being awful. But through adult eyes, I could now see the lessons he was teaching, the comfort he was trying to share. Late in life, Fred Rogers wondered if all his efforts were for naught. He wanted to make the world a better place, but it seemed like it continued to get worse. From the outside, it’s shocking to hear this man doubted himself like he did, but it also enlightens us to how insightful he was to our fragility, regardless of age. I too began to wonder how much impact he had on my life personally. But as the lyrics to a song I hadn’t heard in nearly three decades magically reappeared in my mind, I quickly cast aside any doubts.