If conflict is at the heart of most documentaries, how do you make a film about the nicest, kindest, least conflict-ridden person in the history of television? More specifically, how do you make a doc about Mister Rogers?
That was the task that faced Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for 2013’s “20 Feet From Stardom,” his film about the struggles faced by a group of backup singers. Two years later, he delivered “Best of Enemies,” a gripping doc about a series of epic (and vicious) debates between William Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.
Fred Rogers, the subject of Neville’s new doc, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” was in many ways the opposite of those guys. On his long-running children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he used words to soothe and calm, not inflame and attack, and his politics were almost never an issue.
For the record, he was a Republican, but there was nothing partisan about those cardigan sweaters, those gentle songs, those defiantly low-tech puppets that populated his show.
On paper, all that low-key positivity ought to be tricky material for a documentary filmmaker. But watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” can be a profoundly emotional experience because the story of a kind man in an often unkind era carries with it richness and poignancy.
“He was the least likely television star in history,” Neville said in the Q&A that followed the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, ” … but he had this very specific idea about what he was doing, which was a secular ministry for children.”
Neville tells the story by talking those around Fred Rogers, who died in 2003; he himself is seen in some interview footage, but he never explains himself as well as others do. The filmmakers were asked by Rogers’ family not to make him a saint, and the film does a moving job of showing the doubts and childhood fears that lay underneath what could seem like uncomplicated positivity in different hands.
How Mister Rogers fits in the age of Trump and what he stands for in a time of coarsened dialogue and widening divisions were always going to be unmistakable subtext to the film — and Neville and his team don’t shy away from that, including the silly but fervent right-wing outcry that insisted that Mister Rogers had ruined a generation of kids by telling them they were all special.
They also include some staggering footage from an early episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in which the paranoid puppet monarch King Friday XIII builds a wall around his kingdom.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a gentle film and often a lovely one, but it’s not soft. It spotlights a man who always stood for love but also grew frustrated at the hyperactive violence of much of children’s TV, a mild-mannered Republican pastor who had the strength of will to make himself a pop-culture icon and an inspiring antidote to what we see around us day after day.
(This is a man, after all, who wants to embrace his neighbors, not wall them out.)
There is nothing trendy about Fred Rogers, but there is also nothing timelier than what he had to offer — or maybe, as Neville’s film suggests, nothing more timeless.