I was going to use the phrase “an authentic American Saint” in describing TV host, child welfare advocate and sensitive ordained minister and TV host Fred Rogers.
But in the new documentary about him, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” one of his long-adult sons talks about growing up, having dinner every evening with “The Second Christ as my Dad,” and rendered that point moot. Even his kids knew this was a Biblically righteous dude raising them, in between daily TV shows aimed at giving America’s children value and “values.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is far from the first Fred Rogers documentary, merely the latest movie to use archival programs, footage from other films and chats with those who knew him to lionize America’s foremost TV advocate for children. But Oscar winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) carves in stone the case for Rogers’ as an authentic American TV saint.
And his film, and give the Oscar to somebody else, I DARE YOU, takes on the topicality of the moment, placing Rogers within the zeitgeist of America, 15 years after his death. It’s a loving portrait that is in awe of what genuine kindness looks like, a movie shockingly out of touch with our times, and yet a tonic for them.
Using interviews with those who knew and worked with him — guests like cellist Yo Yo Ma, producers, actors, the show’s salty-voiced floor manager, a TV critic and family — Neville conjures up a flattering, occasionally biting picture of the soft-voiced, comforting figure of “America’s Dad,” a TV host who brought to kids and adults “a different way of being a man” in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and ’90s.
Neville’s film doesn’t find many dark sides to Rogers’ open-hearted TV persona. He hired a gay black actor and singer (François Scarborough Clemmons) to play a principal role on the show, and had im share a wading pool foot-bath, almost Biblical in its foot-washing implications in the divided America of the late 1960s. He might have been behind the cutting edge curve on acceptance of the difference of “gay,” but he was way ahead of America at large in such acceptance.
Rogers’ eagerness to separate “make believe” from the real world is documented, time and again, as his simple, under-produced puppet show dealt with divorce, racism, the Vietnam War and “assassinations” in ways the youngest kids of the ’60s, 70s and onward could understand.
Neville’s film deals with Rogers’ critics, from members of Congress to the Fox News nattering Nazis of negativism, mostly in clips, all of which are suitable for ridicule.
The filmmaker choses to emphasize what Rogers himself pointed to, “love” as the only virtue/issue/talking point worth considering. Kids who have it, thrive. Those who don’t, make your own inferences here, become a Trump or those who blindly/slavishly support him.
It’s worth remembering that Rogers wasn’t alone in holding the line against the antic, noisy, frenetic sugar-buzzed toy-selling nature of kids’ TV of his era. Bob Keeshan wasn’t an ordained minister with Rogers’ child psychology bonafides, but as “Captain Kangaroo” he reached an even larger audience with his quiet, contemplative animals-and-animation and-characters-driven TV show, which lasted on a commercial broadcast network almost as long as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” hung around on Public TV.
But Morgan Neville has conjured up the ghost of a man who called for acceptance, tolerance, kindness and love — understanding — as a way of healing America and the world it was straining to find its place in. A TV host who swayed Congress in is appeal for taking children’s feelings, hurt and emotions seriously, who told all who would listen that “what is essential in life is invisible to the naked eye — love, “and the absence of it” — is worth listening to, 15 years after his death.
Rogers wasn’t talking just about TV and programs and market research and demographics, he was speaking philosophically and existentially, to children and adults about conflict and connection, about each person’s “value” as well as her or his “values.”
No wonder the Foxists hated him. And no wonder he makes the perfect rallying point in a movie about fundamental 2018 American values, where they’ve gone and how they might be reclaimed, in a documentary that questions (lightly) if he can be said to have had any impact at all in a country that named a godless, feckless, lying bully as its leader a dozen years after his death.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
Cast: Fred Rogers, David Bianculli, Margy Whitmer, Joe Negri, Joanne Rogers, Susan Stamberg
Credits:Directed by Morgan Neville, script by . A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:41