The documentary style is one known for pulling back the curtain on people or issues and revealing new truths. But with Rogers, what you see is what you get. He grew up in a well-to-do home and was on the path to becoming a minister when he saw the power of television as an educational tool before most anyone else. The way he "preached" through the TV show was the way he lived, pure and simple - the film just proves it.
To the naked eye, Rogers living his values doesn't seem all that remarkable or documentary-worthy, but the film touches on the backlash among more conservative-minded and intolerant individuals, in addition to wide public speculation into Rogers' sexuality. There's a psychological phenomenon that all this highlights - our unflattering tendency as humans to doubt and look for scuff marks on public figures who present as infallible. This is far from the film's central purpose, however, and director Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") only gives this notion brief exposure.
Neville is instead more interested in conveying the essence of Rogers and his belief system, including where it came from and what it meant to him. The more intellectual meat of Rogers' story presents itself in compelling ways, but then Neville often quickly veers to something else. "Neighbor" glides just below the surface taking fewer deep dives into larger questions, keeping the focus on Fred and the show.
And Neville does so with grace and aplomb. He weaves together clips from the show, interview footage, behind-the-scenes footage, footage of Rogers in the "real world" and present-day interviews, most of which is set to classic "Mister Rogers" piano music. The clips from the show are thoughtfully selected and poignant. They are given to us as gifts, presented without interruption in some instances, so the emotion can just wash over us. They are also teed up with context, so we understand the intention Rogers truly put into every part of the show.
Fairly early on, one of the interviewees poses the question of whether America has learned anything from Rogers. It's difficult to believe that with the platform he had for 33 years that he didn't leave the world full of more compassionate, kind and emotionally well-regulated people than when he started, but much of the experience of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is recognizing ways in which our world hasn't changed and how Rogers' ethos is needed more than ever. He would be heartbroken over the divisiveness of today's partisan culture. That said, he'd also be blown away by how his ethos has been foundational to the worldview of liberalism, which is rooted in Rogers' core belief, that there is good inside of everyone that deserves to be nurtured and loved.
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