Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary about the life and legacy of Mr. Fred Rogers, television icon and star of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, one of the most influential children’s programs in American history. The film is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville.
As someone who never got the opportunity to grow up watching Rogers’ show, I was going into this film with a minimal amount of background and no idea what lay before me. In fact, I was quite out of my element, as I rarely ever see documentaries in theaters, and have never reviewed one up to this point. However, 94 minutes later, I left the theater with a full heart, tears in my eyes, and a new sense of how to unrelentingly love thy neighbor.
If there’s one thing that I can most definitely say that this film is, it’s lovingly reverent. The filmmakers clearly have a deep and immense respect for Rogers and his impact on the world, showcased through the tender and loving handling of many moments in the program’s 40+ year run. Even some of the heavier moments in the show’s history–emotionally speaking–are deeply and thoroughly analyzed to extract the purest and most wholesome good, true to Rogers’ own vision. This is a love letter to Mr. Rogers and his impact on the world, composed entirely in a way that Mr. Rogers himself would create it. It is nothing short of an absolute triumph that director Neville has managed to create a film so emotionally profound that I felt as though I was watching an hour-and-a-half long episode of Neighborhood.
It’s worth noting that the film–while largely made up of archive footage of the show’s production–also contains interviews from a number of individuals who were close to Rogers in some way, from his sons and wife all the way to Yo-Yo Ma. The love and magic that Rogers left behind is immensely felt in each of these moments, told best by those who wish to carry it on into the world.
The film, as briefly discussed earlier, does wrestle with some heavier subject material, pertaining to a number of emotionally heavier episodes of the show, as well actual tragedies in American history. While these moments are the slowest of the film in terms of pacing, and may even be upsetting to some children unaware of their emotional mass, they do serve a quintessential purpose. Quite simply, it is in the heaviest darkness that stems the greatest light. The greater the darkness, the greater the light it creates, and through this darkness, we are truly reminded of what a force for good love can be, personified through the example of Rogers. One specific episode of the show is given a heavy focus towards the film’s finale, in which a specific character explores a theme touched on quite heavily in the documentary. While I don’t like to throw this word around, this moment is some of the most powerful filmmaking I’ve ever witnessed. I was on the verge of breaking down in tears. This film is to be commended for how it handles its heavier moments, and makes them accessible for every member of the audience to experience.
While I don’t in any way politicize my public life or any of my work, it goes without saying that we live in a divided world, politically and ethically speaking. Unrest and panic seem to rule the world in more ways than one, and many people, in essence, have forgotten how to love one another. For 40 whole years, Mr. Rogers and his show were the unrelenting light in a continuous stream of darkness, and would continue to be that light if he was alive today. One of the hardest challenges that face a documentary filmmaker is to ultimately embody the true spirit and nature of their subject material, while still differentiating themselves as a showcase, not a carbon copy. Director Neville has once again done exactly that, and has created the perfect reminder of Rogers’ love in the world, the same love that brought peace and comfort to millions of people through some of the worst moments in human history. This is quite simply the film we need right now.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen not only this year, but ever. It is an extraordinary achievement in documentary filmmaking, and accomplishes something beyond its wildest ambitions. Like its source material, it is the epitome of “feel-good” entertainment, while simultaneously veiling profound and world-changing emotional truth in its core. It is one of my favorite documentary films, and is an emotional experience unlike any I’ve ever felt. I’m very happy to give Won’t You Be My Neighbor? an A+.