Let’s Make the Most of This Beautiful Day…
DIRECTED BY MORGAN NEVILLE/2018
I don’t know about you, but when I come away from a good movie, I don’t just carry it with me, I channel it for a while. This can’t be helped; and is more often than not amusing. (Getting called out for muttering like Clint Eastwood following a screening of The Outlaw Josey Wales comes to mind). In the case of the new, extraordinary documentary about Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame), I can only wish that I could hold onto the feeling and headspace that it’s left me in. And, it makes me wish that others could share in it. and then I imagine how much better the world might be.
It’s not that I’m a good person, per se, but rather, it’s the influence. All glory must go to Mr. Rogers, even and in part knowing that he’d simply pass that glory up The Ladder.
Famously, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Documentarian Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for 20 Feet from Stardom) seizes upon this key aspect to who Mr. Rogers was and why he did what he did the way that he did it. Children’s television wasn’t just his job, it was his ministry. He never spoke much of God directly, instead always displaying a gospel openness and love of all people. Which goes to show that ministries can come in as many shapes and sizes as neighbors do. And everyone was welcome to be Fred Rogers’ television neighbor.
With the sublime Won’t You be my Neighbor?, Neville, in his own way, has extended to all the finer points of Mr. Rogers mission. Only now, the audience is grown-up movie watchers living in a world more overrun with blatant unkindness than any other decade in recent memory. Brilliantly assembled from old clips and new interviews with friends, relatives, co-workers and critics, Neighbor both “prints the legend” of Fred Rogers, and uncovers Whole Truths about him. In so doing, Won’t You be my Neighbor? Is both the film we want andthe film we need, right now. Although based on a quaint TV program, this is the rare documentary that should be prioritized for the the big screen, and viewed by all. The Kingdom of Make-Believe was never more real.
I went into Won’t You Be My Neighbor ready to cry, having been brought to tears by the trailer several times. I wasn’t prepared for how much I laughed – or for how deeply challenged I felt by Fred Rogers’ life. Much of the laughter came from interviews with family, friends, crew members – who shared some quirks and foibles, but nothing Earth shaking about Mr. Rogers. He was, by all accounts, a genuinely good man: earnest, attentive, devoted to trying to grow love in the world. His gentleness and sincerity weren’t an act, which may be the most shocking thing of all. Where does such goodness come from, and how can we get more of it?
Fred Rogers’ seemed to act on cynicism like a solvent, bringing down the guards of even hardened politicians and journalists. He also presented a different vision of manhood – one that was quiet, unassuming, willing to look a little silly trying something new, one that stooped down to look a child in the eye and take his or her questions seriously. Watching him onscreen reminded of a quote from William Scully: “In every act of kindness we hold in our hands the mercy of our Maker, whose purposes are in life and not death.” Fred Rogers seemed ever aware that his kindness toward children was channeling the mercy of their Maker.
What Neville best brings to light, perhaps, is Mr. Rogers’ resoluteness; his stubborn commitment to living his values, even as the world seemed to drift further and further from them. It clearly wasn’t easy. Moments of self doubt and feelings inadequacy are dealt with in the documentary, but they never stopped Mr. Rogers from trying to spread his message, that everyone is a “beloved son or daughter of God”, capable of loving and being loved.
The world has seemed especially mad lately, the long arc of history not cooperating with our hopes for progress. In this cultural moment, we need to be inspired by Fred Rogers not because he did spectacular things, but because he followed his call faithfully even when he wasn’t sure it mattered. There’s been a small debate over whether Mr. Rogers should be called a saint. Morgan Neville has said that we shouldn’t describe Rogers as a saint, because then we’ll think we don’t need to try to be like him. I think there’s a case to be made for the opposite: that his “long obedience in the same direction” is exactly the kind of sainthood we can all aspire to, and which the world so desperately needs.