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I expect you'll be wanting to know whether Mr. Rogers was really like that in life. According to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville's loving portrait of the much-beloved champion of slow television for children, the answer is yes, but it's complicated. Which is just what you want from a tender tribute that's anything but a hagiography of the ordained Presbyterian minister who took the pie-in-the-face out of TV-for-tots.
Fred Rogers was blown away by television's potential — but he was disgusted by its corrupt pandering to advertisers and its exploitation of what he considered the worst in human nature — violence, contempt, condescension. So he sloooowed his TV neighborhood all the way down so he could really talk to kids about their lives and, more important, listen to what they had to say.
His uniform on and off the set was comfy cardigans and sneakers. His audience was the under-ten demographic with parents in tow. He loved silence; "modulation" was one of his favorite words. Given the noisy, cranky, do-keep-up! times we live in now, that makes Rogers a tough subject for a documentary. Neville, whose most recent doc, Best of Enemies, took on verbal prize fighters Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, and who made the terrific 20 Feet From Stardom about backup singers, is a master of many moods. He has this quiet one down too.
Through Rogers' friend, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Neville secured access to the Fred Rogers Company's enormous archive. Through clips from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, interviews with friends, family and crew, and footage from his public appearances, you will learn that Rogers was an astute philosopher who pioneered a safe, gentle space for kids in his Pittsburgh studio, but who never shied away from confronting the big issues — war, divorce, death — with puppets who spoke for their fears, anxieties and aggression.
In many respects Fred Rogers was the gentle soul he projected on his show. He was many other things to boot, among them an instinctive diplomat. The film brings back the famous footage of Rogers charming the U.S. Senate, in six priceless minutes, into coughing up $20 million for PBS in 1969. Won't You Be My Neighbor? offers the antidote to those who dismissed Rogers as too soft and anachronistic for his time back in the 1970s and 1980s. I felt that way myself when I first watched reruns with my daughter when she was small. But you could feel the air settle around you as Rogers walked on set, folded his stork-like frame into a small chair, and beamed his rapt attention at a child with a question or an observation.
What shaped Fred Rogers? In Neville's film you'll see none of the pat "background" segment that so many docu-portraits serve up to "explain" how their subjects turned out the way their did. We are all so mysteriously more than our upbringings, and Neville leaves the explaining to those who knew this man best to reveal, gradually and in organic context, that as a child he was not allowed to express anger, and that in his teens he was bullied as "Fat Freddie." These common-enough travails don't always produce an adult as empathic as Rogers. His faith may have played a part: These days we rarely see the kind of Christian he was — open-minded, inclusive, full of the joys of everyday living (he was a spontaneous kibbitzer on set), yet intensely aware of the fact that becoming a good person was hard work every single day.
Nor does Neville render Rogers as a saint. He could be thin-skinned about the inevitable late-night TV parodies of his folksy style. An attempt to create a show for adults failed. He built anti-racism into his children's show but told a black, gay actor that he could not come out of the closet publicly because it would cost the show its sponsorship. (Rogers came around later to be an advocate for gay rights.) And his two sons lay out in ruefully affectionate detail the challenges of growing up with "the second Christ" as Dad.
Watching Neville's remarkable account of Rogers' life and work, you can't help but wonder what this most conciliatory of spirits would make of our climate of chattering hostility today. He would surely have been appalled by the anti-gay zealots who demonstrated outside his funeral. What would he think of SpongeBob SquarePants (thumbs up, I suspect) or much of the fast-paced, aggressive children's programming on offer today (thumbs emphatically down)?
For that matter, if Mr. Rogers was a cry in the wilderness four and five decades ago, how would he go over now? One evening several years after my daughter was done with his show for good, I was enjoying a blessed moment of quiet as she and six of her eight-year-old friends over for a slumber party fussed around in their sleeping bags. Then came a rousing chorus of "I love you/You love me/Let's get together and kill Barney," followed by peals of rebel-girl laughter. I'm pretty sure Rogers would have ambled in, stroked his chin, wondered aloud if maybe Barney was people too, then gently called lights out. I'd be his neighbor in a heartbeat.