DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Won't You Be My Neighbor?




One of the most favored adjectives used by the beloved TV host Fred Rogers was the word “special.”  Like a soothing tonic, his delivery and meaningful use of that word was absolutely divine. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has five definition variations for “special.”  The unmatched pillar of tolerance and rarest exemplar of virtues that is the personality, minister, father, husband, and man lionized by the impassioned documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor could be its own sixth.  

LESSON #1: THE MANY DEFINITIONS OF “SPECIAL”-- For now, here are the five:

1: distinguished by some unusual quality; especially being in some way superior
2: held in particular esteem
3: readily distinguishable from others of the same category; unique
4: being other than the usual
5: designed for a particular purpose or occasion

Every single one of them could apply to both Fred Rogers himself and Morgan Neville’s exceptional and reverential documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Be ready for the citations.  Without question and to use his word, special care was paid to a special subject for a must-see and purifying viewing experience.  Not long into Neville’s film, the unmistakably memorable piano motif hits and you’re already transported to another place that is not all make-believe.

Beginning in a very real 1967 at WQED in Pittsburgh, the unassuming Presbyterian minister sought the third meaning of “special,” namely the need for a different kind of children’s program away from the mindless and silly comedy offerings of that era.  True to his heart and rooted in his diligent study of early childhood education methodologies centering on relationships and feelings, Fred Rogers created a presentation where he could explain emotions and help children through the “modulations of life” with personalized symbolism, puppet-led artistry, honest conversation, and whimsical performance variety.

LESSON #2: TELEVISION AS A TOOL-- Televisions were (and still are) two-way sensory windows.  Externally, they took viewers to places they couldn’t easily reach. Internally, they brought faces and voices into the intimate setting of the viewers’ personal homes and, eventually, their hearts.  Greater than radio or written literature, Fred knew he could be seen and heard to a degree like no other with a scope farther than local. Television became the ideal delivery device, matching the fifth denotation of “special.”

The fascination and captivation brought by the television medium became Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Spanning nearly 900 episodes over 30 years on PBS airwaves, the phenomenon of the genteel navigated audiences young and old through decades of troubling social changes with calm and quiet inspiration to assuage fears and anxieties.  Those that watched Fred's show always wondered how he did it with things so simple. Like a proper non-fiction film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? pulls back the curtain on the work effort and the ever-present challenges.  The film's pace and punch are perfect.

From there, Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden, the editors of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, become the most valuable artisans.  Like unearthing a perfectly preserved time capsule, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? presents an impressive array of archival behind-the-scenes footage to chronicle this career.  Neville (an Oscar winner for 20 Feet of Stardom) artfully employs animated vignettes as a solid aesthetic touch to further the descriptive presentation.  The documentary also brings an dedicated ensemble of testifying individuals, from his wife Joanne and two sons James and John to long-time partners, actors, workers, and contributors from the television program.  With loving anecdotes and genuine examples fitting of the second definition of “special,” all describe the will, limitless imagination, and the lasting inner childhood of the host as the show and man himself evolved with age to a virtual saintly level.

LESSON #3: LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF-- Based on Mark 12:31, Fred’s theology and prudent sense of values were simple.  He carried himself with a seriousness for the need of people to hear and know that doctrine of neighborly love.  Rogers’ unwavering visions and influence from them granted him the first listed representation of “special.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? presents the core of that incomparable man with an impenetrable reputation of resilience, even against criticism and cynical parody of his messages.  Matching the fourth rationale of “special,” Rogers’ lasting legacy wasn’t years of fame or fortune. It was the mission to mold others that could share the same empathy.  Neville’s film nails that memorialization without fail. What that man did to love cannot be quantified, but this film can sure try with shattering emotional sentiment. The next step and the final life lesson to celebrate the documentary and its subject is one of action and remembrance.

LESSON #4: SHOW CARING-- This imperative command is the real springboard granted by this film experience.  Be the Fred Rogers for someone in your life.  Live up to all five definitions of “special” as he did. Bring out the kindness. Give someone the attention they need. Connect and create a relationship of love.  Be the person they remember as part of their character formation to be a better individual.

Rogers’ central message of all people being special wasn’t a sugar-coating method to soften accountability and spoil people.  It was a measure to build efficacy, namely the power to produce an effect. Rogers did that for millions. If each of us could do a fraction of the same for even one other person, then the world would be a better place in his honor.