'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'
In these days of political acrimony, where it’s too easy and tempting to craft virtual “safe spaces” in which we only consume information that’s in keeping with our established perspective, it’s more important than ever to be exposed to voices and experiences outside what we have determined to meet with our expectations.
Exposure to differing ideas was easier, of course, when there were far fewer outlets to do so. The gatekeeping of previous generations prevented many from having a voice loud enough to be heard, but it also fostered and gave a platform to some who didn’t immediately conform to the safe expressions of what was prevalent. In between the poles of Left and Right rose one pioneering personality, a preacher whose congregation was his television audience, a Republican whose notion of Conservatism was to treat individuals with love and respect, even if those individuals were too young to fully appreciate the magnitude of what he was accomplishing and simply took it as commonplace within their virtual neighborhood.
Fred Rogers was a complicated man, far deeper than his slipper- and sweater-wearing exterior would let on. A political activist with the softest of touches, his warmth and teachings shaped generations of children raised on his kind words, finding a new family among his retinue of characters and sidekicks.
Morgan Neville, no stranger to magnificent works of non-fiction, has assembled a documentary that not only does justice to Rogers’ legacy, but manages with ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ to beautifully recontextualize his work within our current political climate. It’s a deft trick that easily could have devolved into sensationalism or something needlessly polemical. Instead, Neville presents the gospel of Rogers without overpraise or over-simplification, showing the complexity of the man and his teachings.
It’s easy to overlook how hard this is. The ingredients of stock footage and talking-head interviews have been used in innumerable similar works. Yet Neville’s craft is so exemplary, his subject so compelling and emotionally rich, that the finished film plays seamlessly as it navigates Rogers’ life and work. The documentary avoides anything hagiographic yet still manages to make the man more impressive than many could imagine.
It’s rare to see non-fiction on the big screen, let alone with a shared audience. Despite its televisual origins, Rogers’ story is worthy of cinematic scope, particularly in how the emotions expressed and stories detailed affect not only audiences with childhood nostalgia, but for new viewers unaccustomed to seemingly paradoxical ideas such as “compassionate conservatism”. Rogers’ neighborhood wasn’t free from strife or divorced from the travails of everyday life. It was a place of wonder than was never fully escapist. In so doing, children were prepared not only for life’s joys but some of the darkest moments. That was a refreshingly coddle-free view that treated them as young humans rather than fragile things to be mollified.
One of the most emotionally affecting films of the year, this is a masterwork that rises to the challenge of doing justice to its subject, deftly drawing us into Fred Rogers’ world and reminding us of a time when the very medium of television was new enough that risks would be made based on the personality of one individual unswayed by focus groups or advertiser demands.
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is not only one of the best documentaries of the year, it’s equally one of the most defining films of the age. The tale it weaves gives lie to current hegemonic, polar political dogmatism in favor of a communitarian, humanist view that both respects individuals and fosters feelings of empathy and grace.
Mister Rogers still has lessons to teach, and under the guidance of Morgan Neville and his team, his voice will continue to echo to future generations. Won’t you see ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’, please, and experience a joyful, triumphant work that’s truly extraordinary?