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'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' A Review

An Exceptional Documentary Telling the Story of One of America's Most Eccentric Nice Guys

Before I set about watching this documentary, I knew very little about Fred Rogers and what he really did. Being in the UK and growing up in the 90s, I wasn't exactly poised to be well-acquainted with Fred Rogers, or the children's show that bore his name, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. What I knew about him I discovered mostly recently through short clips of one amazing speech he gave or another, or that time he convinced a very cynical Senator to invest $20 million of public money into public television. He struck me as an odd guy, someone who appeared to be so alien compared to, well... the rest of the United States. So how could a man so clearly eccentric and nice, so fundamentally make such a wide impact on the American psyche? Well, this documentary seeks to shed some light on the man that Rogers was, and just how important his message was.

Directed by Morgan Neville, the film seeks to shed light on Rogers and his guiding philosophy of love and acceptance. It touches briefly on his upbringing, but focuses almost entirely around his show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and the cultural impact he sought to make with it. It touched upon his interest in learning about children, in offering them a supportive and caring voice, a platform to explain some of the toughest issues of the day, like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, or even the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. His show dealt with tough subjects even most adults would struggle with, but he presented them in a kind and loving way, showing kids of a very young age that the world isn't always smiles and rainbows, but that they, each and every kid watching, can be a beacon of hope, love, and happiness.

His message was one to show children everywhere that they were special, not in an entitled way that some on the right-wing of America would suggest, but that each individual child was endowed by God with the ability to do good and positive things. In its over 900 episode run, the format of the show barely changed, but it was always willing to deal with the big subjects in the news, because Fred himself wanted to make a truly positive impact in the world; perhaps Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood would be his legacy. 

The documentary briefly touches upon Rogers' personal life, mentioning again briefly that as he got older, he became tougher to work with, and I would have perhaps enjoyed a more rounded view of Rogers, but the documentary was very much presented with a rose tinted filter. This isn't to suggest that the man had many flaws which were just ignored by the film, rather it briefly mentioned that he got tougher as he got older, and I think it may have helped understand the man more if they'd have given a bit more time to that aspect.

As the documentary draws to a close, it deals with how Fred responded to 9/11, how this man who at one time had a way to offer some comforting words even during the most difficult times, found himself struggling to think of the right thing to say. It finishes in the last few minutes with a commencement speech presented by Rogers not long before his passing. It's a real gut-wrenching speech that if you take the time to consider the words and think about the people he's asking you to think about, you'd be hard pressed to hold back the tears that will likely come flooding. 

The documentary is one that knows its audience and knows its subject matter. It knows the story it wants to tell and isn't exactly a biographical piece, but is more a fluff piece, something to reaffirm the many good impressions Fred Rogers' fans had of the man himself. Glazing over some of the negative aspects of the man is disappointing, but unsurprising, and certainly not enough to ruin the documentary as a whole. Whether you're a fan of Fred Rogers, or have absolutely no clue who the man is, I would strongly recommend you give this documentary a watch.

Score: 9.5/10

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