Our friend, Fred

A touching portrait of the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Directed by Morgan Neville. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 5.0

Morgan Neville’s documentary portrait of Fred Rogers, the sweetly gentle soul who presided over Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001 on PBS, offers up a number of rewards, several of which are more or less unexpected.

For me, the surprises are framed by a couple of things, past and present. Back in the day, I never really saw enough of Mister Rogers to make sense of an oddball vibe that sometimes seemed kindly and inspired and sometimes a little bit creepy.

More recently, however, I’ve had the experience of seeing the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? several times and being very nearly moved to tears each time. Part of the special power of that trailer is that it makes quick, lucid and persuasive sense of that long-lived “oddball vibe.” And part of the special power of the film itself is that it adds surprising amounts of depth and dimension to the richly captivating portrait that is already taking impressive shape in the trailer.

Neville and his editing crew (headed by Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden) have done a masterful job of compiling video clips, interview excerpts, backstage bits, and newsreel material into a multifaceted biographical narrative. Rogers, of course, is the central figure in all respects, but Rogers’ wife, Joanne, and their sons John and James add substantially to Neville’s portrait, as do key Neighborhood guests and performers (Francois Clemmons, Betty Aberlin, Joe Negri, etc.).

Rogers was an ordained minister and many of the voices in the film (including Rogers’ own) suggest that his was a kind of secular ministry, directed toward children in a world losing its sense of the deepest experiences of childhood. Television is the chosen vehicle for this unconventional ministry, which nevertheless proceeds toward its spiritual goals in a gentle and seemingly casual manner that is unconventional in television terms as well.

Neville’s expanding portrait of Rogers is impressive all by itself, but this 94-minute movie expands in other ways as well. Rogers was pointedly critical of most television, and of “children’s programming” in particular. His casual, unhurried approach to entertainment and his unforced empathy with children make him a kind of revolutionary in the world of American television.

And Neville’s film also expands into something like a contemplative social protest film. The world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood includes the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, and 9/11. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (and Mr. Rogers himself) look directly at all that brutality and ask what we’ve learned and what we will do.