I approached Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville’s celebratory documentary on Fred Rogers, with the same tenacity as when I used to play with boogie-boards in swimming pools. I’m very bad at boogie-boarding and I don’t very much care for the beach, but for some reason my family always packed a boogie-board for sweltering outings to the pool at my uncle’s old Florida condo. My notion of ‘playing’ with a boogie-board primarily consisted of rolling over onto my back like some kind of chubby otter, bending my legs at the knees, and trying to push the board all the way to the bottom of the 3-foot end of the pool while keeping my head above water. Of course physics has a way of puncturing the plans of youth, and inevitably the board would shoot back up through the surface of the water with all the speed of a cheap, rubbery dolphin. Undaunted, I would repeat this process until I pruned. I’d languish in the chlorine like retirement country’s youngest Sisyphus – one rolly little brown kid amongst a literal pool of wrinkled white faces curled up in bottled frustråation at this determined encroachment upon their quiet mortality.
In the case of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the boogie-board represents my cynicism and the water my ability to still find beauty in shit during this, the year of our Lord 2018. You’ll find more than enough articles about the ‘necessity’ of Won’t You Be My Neighbor during our trying times. With the U.S. steadily hurtling toward collapse and violence governing our politics, it’s comforting to look back on a genuinely good person like Fred Rogers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is absolutely a fluff-piece, but it’s hard to not make a fluff piece on Mr. Rogers by reason of the man’s incessant virtue. He spent forty years battling against public speculation on the hypothetical skeletons that must have been lurking in that famous coat closet – pedophilia, homosexuality (oh no, what a sin!!), a shadowy career in black-ops special forces during the Korean War – and in death as in life, Mr. Rogers disproves them all with saintly grace.
It’s difficult to imagine my boogie-board cynicism breaking the surface of the metaphorical waters during such a positive documentary. And in truth, I felt nothing but unbridled joy and comfort while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It’s not even a very good documentary: it proceeds along a very boring History Channel format of Still –– Testimony –– Archival Footage –– Animation –– Still –– Testimony –– Archival Footage, etc… but it manages to keep your attention if only by the grace of its infectiously kind subject. The only innovative cinematic moments are the cute little animated sequences of Rogers’ sock-puppet avatar Daniel Striped Tiger. Some of these are haunting in their sparse and lonely visualization of Fred’s mind, others are downright sad in their depiction of the man’s unshakeable insecurities about the impact of his mission. Other than these, however, most of Won’t You Be My Neighbor depends on the quality of archival clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Thankfully all of these are Very Good, possessed of the same slow winsome wonder and simplicity that, even when removed from their context, they must have had when they first aired.
The documentary only scratches the surface of Rogers’ personal life and presents a scant outline of his show’s history, preferring instead to focus on isolated anecdotes in its 40-year run: civil rights, the 2nd Kennedy assassination, the Challenger, 9/11, etc. The overall effect is one of resolute optimism in the face of life’s cruelties. There is little of the forced drama present in most documentaries, and indeed the moments that do address the blemishes on an ostensibly wholesome legacy – such as the segment on Mr. Rogers burying Francois Clemmons’ homosexuality in order to keep the show’s sponsors – come in with such a furious poignancy that they feel almost refreshing after such relentless good-vibing.
The supposed ‘meat’ of the documentary is the question Rogers’ biographer Tom Junod poses early on: “have we lost sight of what Mr. Rogers taught us?” Junod himself returns near the end of the film to offer his own personal answer to the question. He recalls how, at Rogers’ funeral, he crossed the street to talk to the group of right-wing Christian zealots picketing the service with classic ‘God Hates Fags’ signs. Junod maintains that demonstrating kindness towards even these people is what “Fred would have wanted.” He’s probably right.
On the surface (I’m sorry I keep coming back to this goddamn water metaphor, bear with me), Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a panacea from the past to excuse the actions of the generation that grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong, I too watched Mr. Rogers as a drooling young boy, but not live. The show ended in August of 2001 when I was only 6 years old, and even then I mostly watched PBS reruns. The Mister Rogers of my youth is a stooped old man with a whistling voice and a tendency to talk about things that happened before I was born. Maybe it was because I attended a 11:00AM Saturday matinee, but the theater in which I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor was filled with people more than twice my age. In other words, Mr. Rogers is not and never has been my saint. The Baby Boomers and the Gen X’ers and even some early-Millennials who grew up with Fred — these are the people to whom this film is being offered. It’s no surprise why this demographic (and indeed most of the reviews I link above are written by this demographic) – would latch so hungrily to a documentary like Neville’s. It does more than just provoke nostalgia for a long-lost era of civility and ‘respect.’ Won’t You Be My Neighbor? hits home because it eases all the grown-ups’ fears that it is their fault this world has gone to hell.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a beacon for centrism in an age when it couldn’t be less relevant. It’s a subtle “don’t punch Nazis” screed for the aging and the aged, even those with good intentions in their hearts. It’s the stubborn, insistent plea that ‘civility’ or ‘kindness’ or ‘equality’ have not left this world, and Fred Rogers’ message did not die with him. There’s even a whole clumsy segment on all the conservative criticism of Mr. Rogers as the catalyst for ‘participation trophy’ culture, vis-à-vis his repeated mantra: “You are special, just the way you are.” The movie does a great job of debunking this ridiculous paranoia, which is probably the most political and the most timely it ever gets, but it feels superfluous and hokey – like a chiding remark against someone who’s literally out here trying to kill you.
Whether you agree with the cult of Mr. Rogers’ undiscriminating kindness is besides the point. The idea of calm and collected discourse did not begin and end with Fred Rogers, although he is a most-notable relic from a time when such a thing was still possible – before corporate terrorists seized control of the nation and state-sponsored media fed us inflammatory lies and the government sanctioned the mass murder of immigrants and trans people and the poor. This film will make you cry and care, no doubt. Perhaps it will even make you believe again in the triumph of love, especially as you watch young Republican Presbyterian Minister Fred Rogers wash a black man’s feet on national television in 1968. If he could do it back then, we can do it now.
That’s the problem though. That was back then.
I keep thinking about all those wrinkled white faces watching with disapproval as my misused boogie-board broke the surface of their quiet pool. They came there to relax, to forget about the stressors of their world, to believe again in the implicit tranquility in history’s state-of-rest. There then I came, boisterous, proving the potency and the power of physics and disproving their staid hopes. What went down beneath the waves came up, every time, unconcerned with their thoughts of innocence and silence, disrupting their Good Time. Who knows? Maybe I was just a little shit who should have kept quiet and enjoyed the pool like everyone else. Maybe all the old folks were right.
But where are they now?
Your reaction to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will likely depend on your age. I may have expected something more universal, something less centrist, something less possessed of its own blindingly optimistic view of a world incapable of meeting the high standards of Fred Rogers. This film is not meant for me, and that’s okay! Unfortunately, watching it made me realize Fred Rogers has never been meant for me either. The humble legacy of a great man who only wanted to leave behind a hopeful legacy for all children, for all of time, has gone unrealized in the face of an openly cruel world beyond his imagining. This does not diminish him as a hero, but it may diminish your ability to connect with this film if you’re too young to remember a time before… well… *gestures hopelessly at everything.