A documentary is a unique form of storytelling in the film medium. Unlike the typical Hollywood movie that tries to buy us with its advertisement of “Based on a True Story,” a documentary is a more authentic and professional way of conveying information to the audience. It’s a way to tell a story about a particular topic through journalism, interviews, and archived footage. The most recent documentary to come to theaters is a biography that focuses on a simple man who went on to create one of the longest-running television shows in history.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” tells the story of Mr. Rogers—the creator and host of the popular children’s show: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” A show that ran from 1968, all the way to 2001. Through documented footage from his life, to interviews with his family, colleagues, and peers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” covers Rogers’ life story; from his humble beginnings in television, to the various lessons and sensitive topics he discussed on his show. But most importantly, it shows the impact he had on the world and the lives of thousands—if not millions—of children.
I’m going to just come out and say it. I was a big fan of Mr. Rogers—I suppose I still am. For the many viewers out there who remember him, just about every rational human being can agree that Fred Rogers was a wonderful and positive role model. He was gentle, kind, and unlike other television programs that talked down to its audience, Mr. Rogers’ program was about engaging them. He showed that you don’t need silly loud noises to keep a child’s attention; that you can teach them in a tender, quiet, environment through gradual pacing. And “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” perfectly captures that in its delivery with how it tells Mr. Rogers’ story. Coming in at only an hour and a half long, the film uses its runtime perfectly; so it doesn’t feel too long or too short.
Due to Mr. Rogers unfortunate passing back in 2003, all footage of him is taken from old home movies, recorded interviews, and archive footage. Which—in a way—makes for a fascinating experience seeing Fred Rogers through the years. Going from a young man starting out in the growing television world as he tries to find his place in it, into an older but experienced senior.
The documentary also shares the personal views and experiences of those that were a part of Rogers’ life. His wife, his two sons, and even his sister are present in the biography. We even get appearances from those that were among the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” crew. Including David Newell, the former mail carrier known as Mr. McFeely, and François S. Clemmons, the former Officer Clemmons. Even Yo-Yo Ma joins the roster to share his experience with Mr. Rogers. And each and every one of them has something to share that kept both the audience and myself transfixed as we drank in their words.
Before I make my closing statement, there’s one final thing that needs to be addressed. I’ve given this film plenty of praise, and I do rate it as a Must-See, however, this is more than that. This is a film that falls under the category of “Top 100 Films You Need to See Before You Die.” It’s been 50 years since “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first debuted, and despite its low budget, the morals Fred Rogers taught are just as important and relevant now as they were then. Yes, I doubt that most kids and teens would be interested in a documentary of all things, especially a biography. However, the story of Mr. Rogers is one that I believe everyone needs to know, regardless of their age.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. If you’ve ever been fascinated about Mr. Rogers and want a behind the scenes look at the man in the colorful sweater, then “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will not only leave you informed and satisfied, but it just may leave you reduced to tears. I won’t give it away, but like many documentaries, this is one that will leave you rubbing your eyes as if someone was chopping onions in the theater. Which is why the final score for this wonderful and informative biography is a solid 9 out of 10!
Marco Island resident and avid moviegoer, Matthew Mendisana is a Lynn University alumnus. While he possesses a bachelor’s degree in science, it’s the arts that attracted his attention. In his four years at Lynn, Matthew managed to achieve Magna Cum Laude status, earn three publications in the Lynn University magazine, make a short documentary featured in the university’s Film Festival, and created a radio PSA that was later broadcasted overseas.