As cultural curiosities go, they don’t get much more curious than Fred Rogers. A Pennsylvania pastor with a penchant for puppetry, he became the soft-spoken voice of public broadcasting for children over the course of fifty years. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary from Oscar-winner Morgan Neville, charts the rise (with no fall) of an American icon.
Fred Rogers, for the uninitiated, was a staple of American television for decades, until his death in 2003. The title of the documentary comes from the atonal song that would greet the start of each show, with Rogers delivering a lilting, not-quite-singing (in Rex Harrison My Fair Lady mode), question to his legion of child admirers: won’t you be my neighbour? The tone is so gentle, so harmless, it’s hard to envisage a documentary that could capture the edgeless wonder of such a programme, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? succeeds admirably, for the most part.
Neville was responsible for the smash-hit 20 Feet From Stardom (which controversially beat Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing to the top gong at the Oscars back in 2013) and has carved a niche for himself as something of an auteur in the field of crowd-pleasing, almost family-friendly docs. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is hotly tipped to bag him a second Academy Award – it’s been breaking box office records in the US (it is currently the runaway highest grossing documentary of the year, the 12th highest of all time, and the highest ever with a biographical subject) and Rogersmania is also seeing Tom Hanks donning the iconic cardigan for next year’s You Are My Friend. Neville has a charming ease with his subject, and the low-intensity interrogations of Rogers’ friends and family yield emotional interesting results.
But the film does have a problem, and the problem is Mr. Rogers himself. For one thing, the film has an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a man who will be totally alien to most viewers in the UK, and whilst the story of the neighbourhood coming to represent something of America’s self-conception is interesting in itself, it doesn’t have the same stakes when divorced of its cultural associations. The second limitation is Rogers’ saintliness. Neville consciously avoids going too hagiographical, but it’s hard not to when almost no conflict enters the narrative and the film is such a passionate portrait of his goodness.
There are moments when, perhaps, the film could do more to problematise Rogers: his treatment of a gay cast member, for example, is somewhat marginalised. But in a market where theatrically-released documentaries often feel so urgent and political, this feels a tad old-fashioned. The film, however, is still a feel-good sensation, because its subject was a feel-good sensation. There are few documentaries that feel like wholesome family films (20 Feet From Stardom is a rare example) but this is one. Overly reverential perhaps, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an uncynical tonic for a very cynical age.