Morgan Neville is quite the busy bee. Waaaaaaaay back at the start of last week, I covered his Orson Welles documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, as part of the Festival’s last round of pre-Fest screenings. And now, already, he’s back with another extremely enjoyable and fascinating documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Of course, this arrangement’s the result of UK distribution nonsense, since Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has been flooding cinemas across America in buckets of tears from June onwards. In America, Fred Rogers was practically a saint – one of the interviewees mentions that he “was working for the second coming of Christ,” his own words, not mine – whose syndicated children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for over 30 years and was beloved by children of all ages right up until its ending and beyond.
So, for Americans, Neville’s comprehensive documentary on the ordained minister turned unlikely television star reads like the easiest lay-up in the world: just line-up a bunch of the greatest hits, let Mr. Rogers talk and, bam, you got waterworks! However, for non-Americans who never saw Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as it was never exported, there was every chance that the earnest, beaming, heartfelt tribute to an American icon just wouldn’t translate overseas. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, much like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself, is a patient, ultra-sincere, and unapologetically kind and sweet film without a single ironic bone in its body. It’s a borderline hagiography of Fred Rogers but really only out of necessity because, unlike many other famous children’s television personalities, he doesn’t appear to have had any skeletons in his closet and was exactly what you saw on TV. The worst he’s shown to do is sort of force his co-star François Clemens to stay in the closet lest the show lose its sponsors for having an out gay Black man in its cast, but they remained close friends regardless of that, with Clemens explaining in tears how Rogers taught him that men can sincerely love each other in a platonic way.
Since there’s no dirt to dig up, Neville instead constructs a portrait of Fred Rogers as decency personified, who took the spirit of Christianity to heart through a belief that one should “love thy neighbor as you would live thyself.” Who compensated for a childhood mostly spent indoors thanks to contracting all there was possible to contract by remaining in touch with his inner child throughout his entire adult life. Who hated television, and most loud cynical children’s television, but was preternaturally gifted at it anyway, using that gift and that unique connection with children to treat them with respect and discuss complex topics without dumbing them down (the first week of Neighborhood was dedicated to anxieties regarding the Vietnam War). A man often confused by changing times but tolerant of them even whilst he remained resolute in the singular vision of Neighborhood. A man who sought to improve the world and inspire younger generations, who would likely be appalled by the current state of the world, and whom imbecilic conservatives vilified for somehow making a younger generation feel “entitled” due to his sincere mantra that everyone “is special just the way [they] are.”
And it broke my screening. My press screening was near-enough full, many of whom had never heard of Fred Rogers before setting foot in that room (as I overheard afterwards), and absolutely everybody was blowing noses, choking back tears, and glassy-eyed by the time it was done. Neville does indeed just hand the mic to Mr. Rogers in archive form from time to time because much of the material is that powerful on its own – the “Am I a Mistake?” duet, plus the way that it doesn’t immediately cure the character singing its thoughts and doubts afterwards, left me a genuine wreck due to my struggles with depression. But he arranges the footage, the testimonies, the stories with such a care and lyricism – especially ending on a gorgeous moment of collective personal reflection – that they gain an additional power which is impossible to resist. I hate using this term when talking about films, because it’s mostly utter nonsense, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? really does feel like a film we need right now. A film about absolute good, of devoting oneself to a life of kindness and tolerance without a hint of cynicism and being celebrated for it. There’s a catharsis to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that feels like a tonic to the misery of the world today. It’s a tearjerker, make no mistake, but it’s a happy one. It’s an exuberant one. It’s a joyous one.
If there’s a better pop-documentary filmmaker working today than Morgan Neville, I’d like to meet them. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is powerful viewing and one of the year’s best films.