When I first saw the trailer for the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I knew I had to see it. I also knew we had a newborn in need of attention and that I’d been a a couple of movies after his birth – so I resolved to wait until I could watch it at home. I picked it up the day it was available for streaming and have already seen it three times. Much like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does everything you shouldn’t do in order to make a successful film, and yet I’m compelled to turn it on and just sit as the story unfolds.
What about this calm, gentle, man is so compelling that even as an adult I stop and listen whenever I hear his voice? And what is it about his story that I find so compelling? I watched explosion-laden movies this summer 1, and I have any number of shows to catch up on though Netflix, but I keep going back to a movie about a kids’ show. What’s the deal?
I think it’s that Mr. Rogers was exactly as he appeared to be – a kind and caring man who wanted what was best for children. He didn’t patronize. He didn’t feel the need to make himself larger than life. He didn’t value his audience by what they could do for him. He just wanted children to know that they could both love and be loved, and that their emotions were something which were both real and normal. Can you imagine a kids’ show nowadays including the question, “What’s assassination?” He did that!
The show was simple, certainly, but that simplicity allowed it to be deep. There is a profundity in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood I see as an adult that I missed as a child, and it’s amazing to consider the things to which I was exposed through that show. I often fear in our hyper-produced world that we have become technical marvels with the depth of a shallow pan, Mr. Rogers still acts as example of a better way to be.
Most importantly for my adult reflections on both the man and the show, however, is how they both hold up to scrutiny. If anything, some of the glimpses the movies provides into Fred Rogers’ psyche make him more remarkable. He wasn’t perfect, he could get angry, he could feel despondent, he grew and changed over the course of his life. When fleshed out, Mr. Rogers remains someone to recognize was a good person. In a world where so many “celebrity heroes” have all be torn down and revealed to be horrible people, there stands Fred Rogers 2 asking, “How do you feel about that?”
And that’s the cool thing. Unlike so many of the fallen folks who have been ripped from our cultural lexicon the past few years, Mr. Rogers was neither a hero nor a celebrity. He was just himself, and seemed to think that was actually good enough. And, really, it was.
Watch this movie.