If your cold, cold heart doesn't melt at some point during Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred "Mister" Rogers, well, I don't know what to do for you. Watching this movie is like freebasing sincerity -- a scarce resource in our current entertainment hellscape. Won't You Be My Neighbor? takes us back to an honest-to-God simpler time, when the idea of a minister with an "abiding interest in children," as one newscaster describes Rogers in the doc, didn't immediately raise eyebrows. Early in the film, the late Rogers -- whose legendary children's show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, aired for more than 30 years starting in 1968 -- expresses his desire to help children make sense of the world "through the mass media."
Through archival footage of Rogers both on and off the set of his iconic show, as well as interviews with his family, friends and former crew members, Won't You Be My Neighbor? draws a flattering yet complex portrait of its subject, who died of cancer in 2003. As complimentary as Won't You Be My Neighbor? is, it's not hagiographic. Rogers, we're told, really was "like that" in real life -- slow, patient, kind. But he, too, was human, and he struggled with issues of self-esteem and even depression.
"What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become," he insisted. In the face of political turmoil, it's tempting to throw up our hands and declare that there's just nothing we can do. But Rogers might insist that there is something we can do (besides vote): We can treat the people around us with dignity and respect. We can be good neighbors.