By Julia Wachtel
There are not many films that make me cry, and I certainly did not expect Won’t You Be My Neighbor to be one of them. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a documentary exploring the life of Fred Rogers, creator and star of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. If you check out your local AMC theater you will most likely be shown reviews for Mission Impossible: Fallout or some other blockbuster. However, according to The Atlantic, “The surprise story at this summer’s box office hasn’t been superhero movies or franchise sequels (the ongoing success of both, of course, being no surprise). Audiences are also crowding theaters to take in a humbler genre: the documentary”. Although Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a limited release, it has received a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and $18,462,117 at the Box Office according to Box Office Mojo. Perhaps in the midst of violent programming, action movies that end in chaos, and loud kids movies (there’s a Hotel Transylvania 3 for some reason??), it’s refreshing to see something so tame.
The film goes into the background of Fred Rogers, as he transitions from being an ordained minister to a career in television and children’s programming. He created and wrote all the music for each episode, and personally answered every piece of fan mail. He’s kind of an anomaly, especially as a figure in television or the media in general. The film does a great job at showing his legacy, not only in children’s programming, but the history of TV in general. In 1969 Fred Rogers swayed the US Senate by testifying to keep PBS funded, and his speech is what saved the network. Later on, Rogers saved the video recording industry, as he said it was important for families to tape shows like his, so they can watch it again later. He used his kindness as a tool to further his message.
There’s simply something beautiful about his story; something that seems so incredibly difficult to cover in one documentary. Mr. Rogers remarkable work ethic, the way he was able to teach children, and the way he stuck to his true self in a time where television screens are filled with violence or hate was quite extraordinary. I was blown away by his gentle kindness. They made someone who was so heroic for so many people seem incredibly humble, and human. They highlight his simple good nature, and the way he was able to embrace anyone he came across. A great deal of the film is showing his capability for love, and how much he understood what it meant, and why it was important. He once said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” It is one of the themes of Mr. Rogers life, which is certainly captured in the documentary. Using footage from his own life as well as clips from his program, his dedication to loving and understanding the people in his community is eloquently demonstrated.
The documentary interviews influential people in Rogers life, whether it was his wife or children, or people who helped create the show. Everyone wanted to say their piece on Rogers, because he had the uncanny ability of positively affecting everyone around him. The thing about Fred Rogers is that he is not complex. The rumors around Mr. Rogers are endless, whether its that he covers his long sleeve of tattoos with sweaters or that he has a secret violent past. None of it is true, but many have a hard time believing it. In reality, all of the sweaters he wore were created by his mother, and were worn to show that he was an authority figure on his program, hence why he is Mister Rogers, and not Fred. Utilizing people who actually knew Fred, as well as clips from behind the scenes and interviews, you really felt as if you knew Fred Rogers.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised about Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It is the type of film that you can go into without knowing anything about him, because they do a phenomenal job at telling his story. His narrative was so interesting, that I couldn’t help but learn more about him. It is kind of amazing to me that a person such as Mr. Rogers ever existed. In one scene, someone says there are probably plenty of people like Fred Rogers out there, they just aren’t so public. It really struck me. It makes you think about what television and really the world would be like if there were more people like Mr. Rogers, and less figures like Tom and Jerry that simply emphasize violence. If you are looking for a quieter hero than Deadpool, or even just a lower budget film than Mamma Mia 2, I would highly recommend checking this out. It is emotional and makes you feel good, and also will not leave a dry eye in the theaters.