Fred Rogers doc a beautiful day in the neighborhood
So accustomed are we to the downfall and disgrace of men that a marvelous sense of its absence propels the rich and glowing documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fifty years after he made his public television debut, Fred Rogers remains aloft: a pure and gentle soul never befallen by scandal, a still-shining beacon of kindness without the near requisite dark shadow.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — as snug as a worn sweater — is hagiography. But it’s deserved hagiography. And thank the lord it’s not an expose.
The film, directed by Morgan Neville, uses behind-thescenes footage from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” archival video of Rogers and copious talking-head interviews with his collaborators and family members, including his wife, Joanne, and their two sons. It’s an affecting window into what remains very possibly the most benevolent broadcast ever regularly beamed out on the small screen.
As unique as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was in its own TV era, Rogers would seem downright extraterrestrial on today’s cable menu. Not long after Neville plays a snippet of Fox News where pundits bemoan Rogers for coddling a generation by teaching them that everyone is special, a former worker on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” wonders if there’s room today “for a nice person on TV.”
Calling forth Rogers today — and that plain, tender and disarmingly straightforward voice — is both a reminder of the mammoth loss (he died in 2003) and how sadly bereft we are of anything like him. Many of the battles Rogers was fighting — against the “ever-ready molders” of children, against mass entertainment made without compassion — are simply no longer waged.
What would Rogers — whose ire was raised by Superman movies that made kids think they could fly — make of an entertainment landscape where superhero blockbusters are billed as family entertainment? Rogers spoke of the “holy ground” between a young viewer and the TV screen. Today, it’s mostly just a battle ground.
But where, on Earth, did he come from? In the documentary, Rogers does sometimes smack of something alien, most of all when Neville relates how Rogers claimed he weighed 143 pounds every day of his adult life. The numbers, he felt, corresponded with the letters in “I love you.”