I was scheduled to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary about the life of Fred Rogers, the day after my birthday. I was feeling pretty lousy and was wallowing in some self-pity when I attended the screening. (Everyone needs a good wallow every now and then.) Six months ago I unexpectedly lost my father, and this was my first birthday without him. This was also the day Roseanne Barr tweeted something racist and lost her television show and it was an easy day to feel like everyone and everything is awful.
Granted, this is a movie that has become notorious for making people cry in its early screenings. But I went, and I’m glad I went. I needed to hear from Fred Rogers.
It’s kind of hard to write about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as a film. It’s exceptionally well-made, mind you – which shouldn’t be a huge surprise coming from Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award for directing 20 Feet From Stardom – but beyond being a film, it’s an experience of earnestness we don’t see or hear much anymore, to the point that it’s a bit of a jolt to the system. It envelops the consciousness with such a positive message that it can make us emotional because we know it’s something quite rare these days – few public figures today with any influence exhibit this sort of earnestness, or “goodness,” publicly.
It’s also emotional because of nostalgia, but it’s not necessarily nostalgia for Fred Rogers or Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Does anyone actually remember specific episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? from their childhood? I’ve probably seen hundreds of episodes as a little kid, yet there’s no way I could tell you anything specific about one episode. Memories of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood form a weird, now-distant kaleidoscope of warmth and comfort. (In contrast, I can remember specific episodes of Sesame Street, like the one when Mr. Hooper died. And speaking of Mr. Hooper, there should be classes taught about the effect his death episode had on a generation.) Instead, it’s a nostalgia for the feeling of people just being kind to each other, which seems really rare right now.
There’s a part in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that explores Fred Rogers’ testimony before a Senate subcommittee on funding for PBS. Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island seemed pretty dead set against the $20 million in funding before Rogers speaks. It’s a pretty dramatic moment: Pastore had just got done with a rant that he was sick of hearing people read pre-written statements. Rogers puts aside what he had prepared and speaks from the heart. After his remarks, Pastore grants the funding there on the spot, saying, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars.” It’s a great moment, but this would probably never happen today. Some smiling politician would say, “Great speech, we will let you know,” then quietly defund PBS a few days later with a Friday evening press release. Anyway, if you want to watch a great thing, the whole speech is right here:
(My one personal complaint about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is that, without warning, it plays the PBS bumper logo from that era. I’ve written about this whole thing and how I feel it’s the most disturbing music and logo in the history of mankind. I used to think I would die if I didn’t turn the television off before it aired.)
But for me, in the headspace I was in, I really needed to see this movie. I needed to be reminded that people really can be nice and decent to each other. But there’s also a sadness to it too because the people who knew Fred Rogers best – his wife and children – think he’d have some trouble with today’s world, and they wonder if he’d even try to make a difference. So we, as an audience, just have to sit back and hope that if he were around today that he would indeed try, because so few today with his kind of influence are trying. But it was good to hear from Fred Rogers again, a voice from the past I really needed to hear this week. It felt pretty great to cry too.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens in theaters on Friday, June 8. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.