Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows us that there wasn’t much of a difference between the actual Fred Rogers and his pleasant persona on the iconic children’s television program Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Even though Neighbor? is about as finely produced as documentaries get, unfortunately “the guy you thought you knew is exactly who you thought he was” isn’t all that interesting. If Mister Rogers Neighborhood was a big part of your childhood, I’m sure this reaffirmation will excite your nostalgia. But I needed conflict or revelations, not a commercial.
After watching Neighbor?, I feel like I still don’t know Rogers. His friends and family interviewed in the doc didn’t seem to know him much, either. Rogers was born into a devout Christian family. He may or may not have had deeply repressed emotions because he may or may not have had a strict upbringing. One of the interviewees speculates the sock puppet characters on his show may or may not have revealed his internal monologues. Who knows? The doc charts his career from the early days of Neighborhood until he died in 2003. To give you a good idea of just how much insight the doc lacks, I don’t remember it explicitly stating his cause of death. Someone mentions he had longtime “stomach problems,” but that’s about it.
Neighbor? may think so but there really aren’t any grand revelations in the doc. The closest it gets to “challenging” what we know about Rogers is briefly exploring his exhaustion late in life. He may or may not have experienced depression after his dream of quality children’s television content across the board never came to fruition. Except it just sounds like he was as ready to retire after 50 years in the workforce as anyone would be. Criticisms of Rogers are either swept under the rug or obviously ridiculous. Rogers’ early homophobia (which he may or may not have reconciled) when he pressured a gay Neighborhood castmate to stay in the closet is immediately dismissed with the old, “He had gay friends.” The doc also shows Fox News idiots claiming Rogers was single-handedly responsible for the “snowflake-ification” of America, which is so silly it can be disregarded out of hand.
The doc is such a puff piece that it reminded me of Salinger (2013), the hours-long commercial that announced new J.D. Salinger novels were to be published. I half-expected Neighbor? to tell us Mister Roger’s Neighborhood will arrive on Netflix this fall or something like that. Still, I can’t deny how watchable the doc is. There’s a pleasantness to it precisely because it doesn’t dig deeper. It may not be very enlightening, but it’s never boring, either. Just about every interviewee says some version of, “If you want to know what made Fred tick, then just watch his show.” If that’s true then I can’t help but wonder why we need Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at all?