Midway through Fred Rogers’ illustrious career, he became convinced that he had exhausted every conceivable story, lesson, and moral tale to tell his audience of kids.
During his subsequent hiatus from creating new episodes of his claim-to-fame Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for his signature demographic, he turned his preternaturally-empathetic sights on forging similar connections with older generations. His attempts took the form of another TV show: Old Friends…New Friends.
Not familiar with it? You’re not alone.
Even Rogers-obsessive can be forgiven for this gap in their encyclopedic knowledge, for Rogers failed to resonate with his peers. At his former job — which he soon returned to — his ability to reduce the complex into the sort of simple beauty that children not only respond to, but actually understand — thereby expanding their conception of existential multitudes — adopted profundity when seen through adult eyes. The latter weren’t the intended audience, but their added experience afforded them the perspective to recognize different levels on which his show was operating (kids, of course, could access levels most adults allow the conformity of maturity to blind them to). But when Rogers directed this profundity explicitly in the direction of adults, it fell on deaf ears.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? should’ve heeded this lesson. Though I’m only aware of these factoids thanks to this new documentary — which offers many more where those came from — as I’ve written too many times before, documentary filmmaking should not be judged by its raw potential to educate. How they’re told is always more important than what’s being told, because the what can so easily get lost in the how. Case in point: one man finds resounding success when he dresses up the insights of his mind for children on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet that same success escapes him when the dress is removed for adults on Old Friends…New Friends, leaving behind less layers with which to communicate.
Similarly, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is basically a glorified full-length DVD special feature; researching its origins, I half-expected to learn that it was originally intended for a box-set to accompany the complete series, providing a sort of greatest-hits biography of the show and its eponymous creator. Can you say puff piece? Memorable art is made up of more than just a Wikipedia-esque timeline of information, conveyed competently but blandly. Imparting information directly to the audience, with no nuance added through structural subtext, is like an uninspired professor lecturing to his class by simply reading from a textbook.
Despite containing treasure troves of material — courtesy of archival footage, old interviews with him (he died in 2004), and new interviews with other major personal and professional players — the traditional structure of this straightforward chronology lacks the type of thoughtful artistry found in the most engaging documentaries. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? jumps from one subject and event to the next, connecting each by little more than convenient temporality.
Some of these subjects are legitimately intriguing, and could easily stand to be further investigated. For instance, Mr. Rogers believed that artists treated the influential power of mass media recklessly, and that they should always keep an eye towards delivering messages that leave a positive impression on the viewer, benefitting both them and society. Though once considered a conservative notion (the doc notes he was a lifelong Republican, even though he and his art opposed — not totally, but still progressive for his era — some of his party’s intolerant beliefs), the Age of Trump has compelled America’s left to reignite this debate from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
These sorts of discrepancies between his politics and personality run throughout his work, life, and art. Whereas he was seemingly espousing wholesome American values — the documentary’s title comes from one of his moral catchphrases, which captures his worldview of total acceptance and unity — he also insisted on telling children that they were special just the way they are, an antithetical ideal to the American Dream’s vision that everyone must strive to work to deserve their lot in life. Instead of delving into these quasi-contradictions, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? merely introduces one before skipping to the next, inadequately exploring any.
Choosing one of these issues as a lens through which to examine this examination-worthy figure could’ve lent some much-needed focus. Macro pictures are best formed as a composite of micro portraits steeped in specifics. In its march to cover as much ground as possible, the man behind the legend almost becomes lost. We might know the particulars of his life more after watching the doc, but do we feel like we know his personality more? Or just the personality he projected? Was there a difference?
Again, these are questions barely even presented here. His family can be forgiven for reinforcing his Father Theresa persona, since they probably want to preserve his squeaky-clean legacy. But could the man on TV really be the real person? Was Mr. Rogers actually Fred Rogers?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? insufficiently touches upon these questions, implicitly posing them without meaningfully probing. In a way, it DOES reflect the unease of its subject’s identity; both couldn’t decide if they wanted to be conventional or radical. For the documentary, it’s stuck between being a standard and thus boring survey, and a radically-dynamic and invigorating excavation of a significant pillar of our past, daring to shed new light on an old star.
Fred Rogers will be remembered for talking to kids in an inventive manner unimaginable to his forebears; Won’t You Be My Neighbor would’ve been wise to follow his lead.