Midway through the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? lies a piece of narration that anchors, for good or bad, the rest of the film to everything about United States in the here and now: Mister Rogers was a life-long Republican.
If you know anything about the saintly Mr. Rogers — and if you were born any time between 1960 and 1999, you’d be hard pressed not to have at least a familiarity with his PBS show — you know that the “life-long Republican” label is almost too hard to imagine. While Trump is never spoken by name, his ethos briefly haunts — then is wholly revoked — by the beautiful, lovely, reflective film.
Which is not to say that the documentary is politicized. Far from it. Nor should it be. In fact, until human decency became a partisan issue, the movie stood apart, and will continue to stand apart in the many years to come, as one of the best documentaries ever.
Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) is doing little that’s groundbreaking as a filmmaker. It’s to Fred Rogers’ credit that being kind is such a mesmerizing, foreign concept now. The film documents Rogers’ work and life through the usual fare, shown through old footage and conversations with friends, family, and coworkers (François Clemmons, born in Birmingham, Alabama, is both humorous and touching with every detail he shares and is a particular standout). Many of Mr. Rogers’ emotions are captured via an animated version of Daniel Tiger, Rogers’ wonderfully old sock puppet. These scenes in particular disclose those of a man with an emotional range far beyond the bliss and peace usually associated with him and his work.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an enlightening wonder about a man whom I realized still influences me and millions of others today. For instance, I was never aware the Mr. Rogers had children of his own nor had I given thought that he had a wife at home. As a child, I assumed he lived in that PBS set. The movie nicely addresses some of the urban legends that we’ve all seen circulate since the Internet age become the norm and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ceased to exist.
The perfection of the movie, though, could be best conveyed in those last three minutes that are bound to bring viewers simultaneous joyful and melancholic tears for what we can become and all that we’ve lost.
It is not hyperbolic: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the most important film released in recent times. Rogers and his legacy will be a firm answer to the usual groupthink assumptions to what it takes to be not just a man but a human.