I didn’t love “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” director Morgan Neville‘s acclaimed documentary that follows the life of Fred Rogers, a television icon who launched the popular PBS series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I didn’t really like it that much either, and for that I feel like some kind of bitter, unfeeling monster. This documentary has a pure heart and a loveable subject, but it’s downright strange in tone and construction.
Most adults (and even some kids) tend to look back on Mr. Rogers and smile. He was the friendly father figure who welcomed us to his home every week with a cozy sweater, ratty puppets, and life lessons that cross generations. Rogers made a career out of nurturing compassion and love, reminding all of us to “look for the people helping” whenever we needed comforting during life’s scary moments.
The film teaches and preaches kindness, which deserves major kudos in today’s divided society, but its frank preachiness is where it falters. The old adage of “too much of a good thing” proves its veracity here. Rogers, through old television clips and a jumbled mess of mildly compelling interviews with friends, family, and coworkers, is presented as a bit of a saint through rose colored glasses. While the film has some genuinely touching moments, I wish the man himself had been explored on a deeper level.
Neville seems far too apprehensive to reveal the flawed side of this childhood icon. The real nitty gritty, including rumors about Mr. Rogers’ sexuality, his rumored past as a supposed Navy SEAL, his background as a very devout seminary student, and his insistence that a gay cast member remain closeted for fear of losing sponsors, are only briefly touched upon in favor of feel-good, weepie scenes of grainy video — like a duet with a young boy confined to a wheelchair. I don’t mean to sound like a heartless cynic but after 90 minutes of uplifting moments that are designed to elicit tears from the audience, the repetitiveness was making me squirm.
Despite its flaws, the film is a moving tribute to the creative genius who was so tuned in to the notion of childhood that he inspired (and continues to inspire) generations of kids the world over. Kindness and compassion is something we can always use more of, and this documentary lends a hand in spreading the notion of tolerance, sympathy, and grace in the face of adversity.