Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is equal disappointment and relief. We listen to old yarns and tall tales about Fred Rogers, hoping to finally hear some sort of anecdote that he wasn’t so cozy, mentally or emotionally, inside those turquoise and magenta sweaters. But the documentary and its subjects are steadfast in their claim that Rogers was always the calm, convivial beacon of hope that he presented himself as on TV, reassuring our beliefs about a beloved icon.
The closest claims we get in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” that poke holes in Rogers’ virtuous armor are how he once told a closeted gay cast member to not frequent an LGBT club anymore (since those were the times), and how he was raised in a household where he wasn’t allowed to be angry. Everything else though is staunch support of Rogers as an innovator of the television medium, a devoted steward to children and their cause, and an all around friendly guy to the lucky family and peers in his circle of good.
Directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is chock full of vintage clips and unearthed footage from Rogers’ landmark television show. For those who watched Rogers’ show back in the day, the doc will conjure deep nostalgia and emotional catharsis, speaking to the inner child that still marches triumphantly in baby boomers’ bones. For those only aware of Rogers’ legacy but not didn’t watch his program growing up, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will feel like a masterfully-edited Wikipedia entry about Rogers without providing extended reading.
It’s a good doc, but for those of who are neither Rogers’ devotee nor Rogers’ novice, we’re left wanting more. Most of the focus is on Rogers’ career in television, with interviews from family, peers and co-workers who were near the host’s side during that time. Little emphasis is placed on Rogers’ younger years, nor the specific locations dear and near to his heart. Perhaps the real Rogers really was how the doc’s respondents claim him to be. Even so, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” still feels like its missing a building from making its neighborhood complete.