I expect you'll be wanting to know whether Mr. Rogers was really like that in life. According to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville's loving portrait of the much-beloved champion of slow television for children, the answer is yes, but it's complicated. Which is just what you want from a tender tribute that's anything but a hagiography of the ordained Presbyterian minister who took the pie-in-the-face out of TV-for-tots.
Fred Rogers was blown away by television's potential—but he was disgusted by its corrupt pandering to advertisers and its exploitation of what he considered the worst in human nature—violence, contempt, condescension. So he sloooowed his TV neighborhood all the way down so he could really talk to kids about their lives and, more important, listen to what they had to say.
His uniform on and off the set was comfy cardigans and sneakers. His audience was the under-ten demographic with parents in tow. He loved silence; "modulation" was one of his favorite words. Given the noisy, cranky, do-keep-up! times we live in now, that makes Rogers a tough subject for a documentary. Neville, whose most recent doc, Best of Enemies, took on verbal prize fighters Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, and who made the terrific 20 Feet From Stardom about backup singers, is a master of many moods. He has this quiet one down too.
Through Rogers' friend, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Neville secured access to the Fred Rogers Company's enormous archive. Through clips from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, interviews with friends, family and crew, and footage from his public appearances, you will learn that Rogers was an astute philosopher who pioneered a safe, gentle space for kids in his Pittsburgh studio, but who never shied away from confronting the big issues—war, divorce, death—with puppets who spoke for their fears, anxieties and aggression.