‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ is needed emotional tonic for troubled times

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ movie (Focus Features)

If beloved legendary children’s television show host Mr. Rogers were once a representation of all things milquetoast, in the summer of 2018, his message of generous, abundant love and tolerance is not only saintly, it’s radical. In the deftly crafted documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Academy-Award winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) manages to make the mild-mannered Fred Rogers look downright revolutionary.

The probing documentary takes us beyond the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the PBS show that raised several generations of children and was guided by the simple but hugely impactful ethos that every person should be valued, and everyone deserves to be loved. It’s hard to imagine the notion might be a controversial stance, but in the world we live in today, just about everything can be fought, debated and taken down.

This is why “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is so moving, an emotional tonic for troubled times. Perhaps hindsight is 20/20, or perhaps one has to be an adult to fully comprehend just how incredibly brave and committed Fred Rogers was with his philosophy of helping children “through the difficult modulations of life.”

It sounds strange to say, but “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is truly fearless TV, starting with its sweetly lo-fi aesthetic, co-starring a host of well-loved puppets. The fearlessness extended to the content, addressing issues of the day head on, from the RFK assassination to racism and segregation. The show made bold political statements about tolerance, and it helped children understand grief and the darker sides of life in a way that showed respect and dignity for their feelings, which he described as both “mentionable and manageable” in testimony before a Senate hearing for PBS funding.

Through interviews with the producers and crew of the show (his “playmates” as he called them), his wife, sons, colleagues and friends, we come to know Mister Rogers, who yes, was a lot like what we saw on TV — warm, empathetic, guileless, open-hearted. But he was also sly, funny, a prankster and a person who had to learn how to deal with or “tame” his own feelings in different ways.

But for all the new perspectives we gain on Fred Rogers — how incredibly driven, political and complex he was — the most important one we’re left with is the one we had all along. And it’s that reiteration of unconditional love that truly pierces the soul. His message that every child is special is not one of entitlement or narcissism, and it’s quite the opposite: humble, giving and caring. Now it’s up to those of us who grew up on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to embody what we learned from him.

MOVIE REVIEW

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Grade: A

Starring Fred Rogers, Tom Junod and Joanne Rogers. Directed by Morgan Neville.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Bottom line: Moving biography that captures TV personality's essence, mission

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