While the film could not be described as anything but a fawning hagiography, the way Neville communicates Rogers’ greatness contains a degree of difficulty. Many of Rogers’ colleagues are still alive to sing his praises, and they do, but amongst the hundreds of hours of footage, Neville and editors Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickendon find plenty of examples of what the talking heads are describing. Rogers, through his training in child development, had an intuitive sense of what a kid is saying when, for example, one spontaneously pipes up about a stuffed animal that lost an eye in the dryer. Rogers knows that the kid is worried about his own parts coming off, and is looking for reassurance that it won’t happen, reassurance that Rogers is able to give in return for the priceless gift of a child recognizing that they’ve been heard. This anecdote is one of many where Rogers demonstrates his greatest gift; pure and unadulterated attention given to who he’s speaking with. Whether adult or toddler, Rogers always looks directly in a person’s face and lets the rest of the world melt away, reducing the universe to two humans in communion with each other.
Rogers gives his thesis statement early in the film about how ‘love is at the root of all relationships; love or the lack of it.’ That elegant simplicity undergirds his TV show, a revolutionary move for what he considered a vulgar medium when he started in the 60’s. Simplicity is not what was being passed on to viewers, then or now, as much as commercialism and emptiness. Rogers sounds like a born critic when he says that every piece of media has values. He’s described as a lifelong Republican, but the history that he’s standing athwart yelling stop towards is a trend towards ever-present marketing and entertainment as a passive endeavor. The man feels like a kindred spirit in these moments, a further endearing of a subject who, beneath his placid exterior, was raging against the dying of the light as shows like his weren’t replicated while toyetic cartoons propagated like rabbits.
Neville is clearly in love with Rogers’ life and mission, sometimes to the film’s detriment. The blackest mark on Rogers’ record is a refusal to allow co-star Francois Clemons to come out of the closet as long as he was working on the show. On the one hand, Clemons has little but effusive praise for Rogers, and based on the plain admiration and love in Rogers’ eyes towards Clemons, the feeling was likely mutual. He doesn’t seem to hold this slight against Rogers and therefore why should the viewer get irritated on Clemons’ behalf? Neville forces absolution into his film beyond what Clemons freely offers, piping up from behind the camera to prompt Rogers’ widow Joanne to talk about their gay friends. It’s Neville’s primary misstep, a failure to let Rogers’ be imperfect.
Rogers, for all the talk of revolutionary formats, is shown to be a conservative presence. He knew that times were changing, but that children were staying the same and needed an island of stability in their media consumption. Fred Rogers could be that rock and then some. What I most remember from his show were the trips to factories, where the process of an assembly line churning out products was shown in minute detail. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the equivalent attempt, a lovable film about a quietly legendary man. A-