MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
In the 20th century, there were three great American televangelists who brought the Gospel to millions through a medium that, as early as 1957, Pius XII recognized could “contribute a great deal to the religious life.” One was Fulton Sheen, a man so captivating, intelligent, and humorous that his simple chalkboard could outperform I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show night after night. Another was Mother Angelica, who was not only great on camera but in three decades would create the largest religious media corporation in the world. The third may surprise you—Fred Rogers, the soft-spoken native of Western Pennsylvania who hosted a low-budget children’s program on PBS. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the first major documentary about this saintly figure, whose true significance was only felt once this world was without his presence. The film doesn’t offer any striking revelations, but it allows the viewer to contemplate Fred’s philosophy and how very, very needed it is in 2018.
Director Morgan Neville does not provide much of a plot, but rather strings together in mostly chronological order a number of important themes and ideas starting with Rogers’ early days on The Children Corner in the 1950s to his death in 2003. Fred entered the seminary and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. However, he changed course after watching people being hit in the face with pies on television, and resolved to create meaningful programming. He would bring together three important elements—his evangelical fervor as an ordained Christian minister, years of studying under prominent child psychologists, and experience with multiple aspects of television production—to create Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran on PBS stations across the nation for more than 30 years.
The show’s biggest strength came from the heart of Fred himself. “I’ve always felt that I don’t have to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child,” he said of his early days. He simply invited children to slow down for 30 minutes and learn something about the world and themselves.
One of the most common questions about Fred was put quite bluntly during an interview in the 1980s. “Are you for real?” the reporter smiles. Fred only smiles back. Unfortunately, American culture seems to relish in de-mythologizing our heroes, whether its Bob Ross’ military career, Billy Graham’s supposed anti-Semitism, or Mother Teresa’s hospice conditions. Fred was no exception; there were urban legends about him being a sniper in Vietnam, that he wore long sweaters to hide his many tattoos, or even that he was gay. Behind this gossip lies an insidious vulnerability: if he was not who he said he was, then I don’t have to listen to him when he tells me to change. Good people are evidence holiness is achievable, and that is not acceptable to many.
An insecure person might fire off tweets about fake news but Fred, like saints through the ages, would be the first to admit his failings. During his first week of production, he tried address the Vietnam War by having King Friday set up barbed wire wall around his castle to “prevent any change,” only to tear it down immediately after receiving a message strung to balloon with the words “peace” and “tolerance.” It was an attempt to tackle a big issue, but it comes off overwrought and naïve. Fred also temporarily shut down production in the mid-70s to produce a television show for adults that failed miserably. Fortunately, he went right back to the neighborhood.
Another common criticism the film addresses is the notion that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood spawned a generation of entitled adults who believed they are “special” and didn’t need to achieve anything. This charge is, frankly, infuriating, because after watching even a few episodes of his show, it is clearly not his message. Fred was uniquely tailored by God for his evangelization because he, more than most adults, remembered what it was like to be a child. To accept any kind of responsibility and thrive, a child needs to “know that he is loved and capable of loving.” This is best exemplified by the famous scene in which Daniel Tiger worries that he “is a mistake.” The essence of Christianity is the idea that every person has an inherent dignity that does not come from society or an ideology or even a loved one, but from God. God does love us “just the way we are,” and that gives us a reason to become even better.
In every scene, the man himself is marvelous, but occasionally the filmmakers reveal their own tinkering with the message. The film does, to my surprise, note that Rogers was a registered Republican his entire life, but rather than showing an educator interested in wholesome child development, it often tries to mold Rogers into, first and foremost, a progressive civil rights leader, citing his multi-racial cast, his interviews with disabled kids, and his willingness to tackle sensitive topics like divorce. François Clemmons, who played a police officer on the show, wanted to come out as gay, but Fred asked him to not to. The film implies that Fred was a product of his time, and today would have been accepting of Clemmons’ lifestyle. Yet Fred’s words and actions tell another story. Fred talked freely about many controversial issues that might have got him into trouble, but when he discovered Clemmons went to a gay bar, he firmly told him not to return. Fred may have not read #2358 of the Catechism, but nonetheless he brilliantly lived the Christian ethic by welcoming Clemmons into his life while refusing to endorse something that violated the man’s God-given dignity.
During his final days of life, racked with pain from stomach cancer, Fred asked his wife if he was “a sheep,” referencing the Judgement of the Nations. “If anyone’s a sheep,” she responded, “it’s you.” Fred rarely mentioned religion directly on his show, but frequently mentioned the Bible in interviews when explaining his work. He started every day in prayer, specifically thinking about people who made a positive impact on his life. The film ends with each interviewee mentioning who that person was for him or her. After the film, I found myself thinking about the Rev. Fred Rogers, then praying for him, then asking for his prayers. I’m six years and three children into my marriage vocation, and I’m having a rough go of it. I hope that Fred can help me, and I’m sure if he’s experiencing the beatific vision, that’s exactly what he’s doing. I can probably count on one hand the films that have inspired me to pray. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is one of them.