Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
The new documentary about the life of Mr. Rogers finally made it to my neighborhood. While what Won’t You Be My Neighbor? says is touching, I couldn’t help but notice what wasn’t said.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has an obvious hook: it’s about a man that millions of viewers grew up watching over the several decades Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired. Just hearing the piano tinkling out the iconic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” song brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my face. This documentary is so disarming they should broadcast it in North Korea. While it combines archived footage, contemporary interviews, and behind the scenes vignettes, the documentary felt a little incomplete. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a nostalgic and moving production, but it’s reticence to poke too hard in a few areas left me wanting more.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Fred Rogers was an aspiring Presbyterian Minister that found his calling ministering to children. Making the leap to a fledgling TV medium, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood became a place that welcomed everyone. Mr. Rogers’ gift for listening and love for all children made the show a cornerstone of the American Television zeitgeist for decades before finally ending in 2001. Fred Rogers passed away in 2003.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? combines footage from the show, animated vignettes, and interviews with surviving friends, family, and cast-members.
Warm as a Wool Sweater
This documentary feels pleasant, nostalgic, and almost reverential. This certainly forges a bond with the audience: “Remember that guy you grew up watching every morning? We do too.”. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is definitely catering to people who already knew about Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It does enough as a chronicle to be useful for people who never knew Fred Rogers, but the film feels more like a celebration of the Show than a deep dive into the man.
I left the theater feeling like I’d been reassured that the Fred Rogers I saw change into loafers every morning was the same man who existed when the camera wasn’t rolling.
The Neighborhood of Make-Believe
The problem is that the documentary shows just enough to get the feeling there was more to be said. Heck (It’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and you don’t cuss in it), one stage hand literally told the cameraman that he wouldn’t share some notable stories he had from his time on the show. That reticence faintly wafts through interviews with Mr. Rogers children. I’m not stating that I need to find a skeleton in the cardigan closet, but I go into documentaries with my “spin radar” at 11, and all the heartwarming moments weren’t enough to get it all the way to zero. It pokes around at a full accounting of the man, including addressing the time Fred Rogers asked longtime co-star Francois Clemmons to keep his homosexuality closeted for the good of the show. These moments when you get a fuller reckoning amplify the times when Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seems a little fluffy.
Could You Be Mine?
Once again I want to reiterate that I’m not a ghoul who only considers a documentary valid if it has salacious revelations. As a cathartic hour and a half filled with smiles and tears, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? succeeds magnificently. But Tom Hanks is going to be giving us a semi-fictional story about Fred Rogers later this year; I wanted to walk out feeling like I had heard the whole story here and now. I’m not sure I did. If you want to bathe in the soothing waters of this documentary, feel free to take off your socks and get right in. The water may not be deep, but man is it pleasant.