Won't You Be My Neighbor (Focus Features)
We're used to seeing Fred Rogers on a small, blurry TV screen -- mainly in black and white -- from the '60s and '70s. In the new documentary we see this earnest, driven man's face differently, on a big screen, in sharp hi def. We see the eyes twinkle and the mouth curl into a knowing smile. We see the virtues of compassion and goodness writ large. It is almost a religious experience -- religious in the purest sense, in the sense of what the best of us are capable of, of what we can aspire to, of what can inspire us.
Won't You Be My Neighbor is so saturated in genuine emotion and love it is difficult, a day later, to think of it analytically. Which is high praise. The craft of the doc is such that it is tremendously effective while its moving parts are virtually invisible.
The film portrays Rogers as a tele-evangelist -- but not that kind. He is an evangelist for decency and kindness and television is his medium. He is a Seminarian who somehow missed the class called "What's In It For Me" that seems to be the favorite course of all the other tele-evangelists. His course-work at Seminary were the nostalgic ones, the antiquated ones, you know, the ones about "there but for the grace of God go I" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." As a man, Fred Rogers certainly was flawed. But his calling -- to save an entire generation of children -- was not.
The film is about the good we can be and the craven nastiness we too often are. Right wing headlines decrying Fred Rogers as a devil for suggesting that all children have inherent value worthy of love just by being their unique selves. Insane protesters at Fred Rogers' funeral forcing their children to hold placards declaring Rogers an instrument of evil. Implicit in these attacks is the moral conflict embodied in Christ and the Pharisees.
I cried throughout.
Yes, for the wide-eyed children that heard an adult say that he loves them for exactly who they are - for their fears and flaws and the ways they are different from the others. But I also cried for the possibility embodied in Fred Rogers, the promise of love that may be simple but is never simplistic. I cried for the morals of virtue and decency and kindness and -- yes -- wholesomeness. I looked up that word, wholesome. I found kindred words like innocent and honest and ethical and pure and good and virtuous. Old-fashioned ideals that seem always to be out-of-fashion -- and now more than ever. Unless there's a Fred Rogers around when we're young to bring out our better angels.
See this movie, friends. Bring kleenex. - Mark Weston
Mr. Weston is a cultural gadfly and world famous purveyor of happiness. He lives in New York with his family and dog and occasionally dallies in writing plays.