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A beautiful day in the neighborhood

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We live in a world filled with sharp divides. So many lines that see so many people on either side. Common ground and understanding are in short supply. But there’s at least one thing on which the vast majority of us can agree.

Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a good man and his neighborhood was a good place. No matter how you feel about literally anything else in the world, you are almost certainly onboard with that sentiment.

He’s the subject of director Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It details the life of Fred Rogers through an exploration of his iconic children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and interviews with many of the people who knew him best both personally and professionally – although it rapidly becomes clear that knowing Mr. Rogers in any capacity meant knowing him personally.

Fred Rogers was born in western Pennsylvania in 1928. He graduated with a degree in music composition in 1951, married his wife Joanne in 1952 and had two kids – James in 1959 and John in 1961. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963.

He also spent some of those years working in television, doing music and puppetry work for a variety of kid-oriented programming before eventually arriving at the conclusion that there was vast potential for good in this still-new medium. After a few early iterations, the program that would become known to generations of children as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired for the first time in 1968, moving to its ultimate home on PBS in 1970.

And for 30 years, Mister Rogers brought his unique brand of love and respect for children to the nation’s airwaves. Between quiet life lessons taught on his simple set and the fun, thoughtful stories told through puppetry in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Mister Rogers helped millions of children deal with the issues – large and small – that were a part of their lives.

Here’s the thing about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – you will cry. No matter who you are, you will tear up. It might not be in the same places that I did, but you will. If you were ever touched by the work of this man, you will. For what it’s worth, I took the biggest hits during footage of his PBS-saving testimony in front of Congress back in 1969 and his meeting with Koko the gorilla 30 years later, but your mileage will vary.

Because as it turns out – that guy you saw on the screen for decades? That was ACTUALLY WHO FRED ROGERS WAS. He WAS that gentle, sweet man who wanted nothing more than to help children feel better about themselves and the world around them. He WAS that passionate advocate for the welfare of kids and the power of television. And he WAS that person who had an immense and positive impact on every single person’s path he ever crossed.

Neville has struck an ideal balance between archival footage and interviews. Seeing Mister Rogers in action, both on the set and behind the scenes, gives us a wonderful sense of both the passion and the playfulness of the man. He was possessed of a gentle joy that poured out of him whenever he dealt with children, regardless of whether it was for the show. His inherent goodness was constantly and completely apparent.

And it wasn’t just kids who loved him. The people who worked with him adored him just as wholeheartedly as the children who watched him. Conversations with performers from the show – folks like Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) and David Newell (Mr. McFeely) – are beautiful in their affection, though the most thought-provoking was probably Francois Clemmons. He played Officer Clemmons on the show and had perhaps the most complex relationship with Mister Rogers, but even their dynamic was one built on love and mutual respect.

The conversations with his wife Joanne and his sons James and John offer a look at the man as he was at home, which, as it turns out, is largely the same person that we grew up watching. We do get a sense of the difficulties that came with being the family of someone who considered the whole world to be his family, but ultimately, it is clear that they cherished and were cherished.

(Probably my favorite of all the interviewees was Nick Tallo, who helped lead the crew for hundreds of episodes of the show. Tallo shared the same obvious affection for the man as everyone else, but he also delighted in offering stories that showed glimpses of a more mischievous side of Mister Rogers. It’s through Tallo that we’re given a sense of the man’s sense of humor and appreciation for a good laugh … even if it isn’t necessarily squeaky clean.)

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an extraordinary look at an extraordinary man, a chance to visit a beloved neighborhood one more time. No matter however else we might be divided, we can all agree that Fred Rogers was a good neighbor indeed.

[5 out of 5]

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