‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ and the Ghost of Innocence Past (FILM REVIEW)


Driving home, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed. The tears now welling in my eyes, threatening to blur my vision on this highway, are strange to me. I was fine in the theater. Fine in the parking lot. Fine for most of the way home. It’s just past the midpoint between the theater and my apartment, however, that the weight of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? hits me like an errant wave.

It’s been 15 years since Fred “Mister” Rogers died, at the age of 74, and it’s difficult not to look back on the years since—years that comprise the majority of my adult life—and think that we’ve lost our way. Mister Rogers, with his terminal niceness and indefatigable sweetness, becomes, in this context, the physical embodiment of our collective moral compass, and without his light we have all be floundering, groping in a dark abyss of spirited meanness and mutual disdain.

We have become trapped in an echo chamber of willful misunderstanding, screaming in the darkness, lobbing of missiles of vitriol and hatred without a moment’s thought. As our planet has become smaller, and as we make digital friends with followers a half world away, we’ve grown, somehow, farther apart. We’ve forgotten how to smile, how to listen, how to care.

We’ve forgotten how to be neighbors.

That’s the weight of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and comes crashing relentless. I am doing my best to navigate this familiar highway leading to my home—my neighborhood—but the floodgates of my emotions are threatening to collapse, and the way home is becoming less and less clear. What is it that I am feeling here? The documentary isn’t a sad one; in fact, it is the opposite. It is as uplifting a film as has ever been released, the perfect salve for these divisive times.

As it crashes against my skull once again, it hits me. Guilt. I look back across this past decade and a half, our first 15 years in a post-Mister Rogers world, and I see all that we have done, all that we are doing, and all that we have forgotten about what Fred Rogers taught us. The farther we get from the light of his life, the more it feels that we’ve let him down. That we have collectively failed Mister Rogers. I need to pull over.

Weeping now, I sit in the parking lot of a grocery store, trying and failing to compose myself. I hold my face in my hands, repeating “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” over and over again to no one. I barely notice the shimmering, red cardiganed form take shape besides me.

Well, what’s the matter, James? Are you feeling a little blue?

“Very blue, Mister Rogers,” I say, blowing my nose on paper towel I found stuffed in the door.

That’s okay. We all feel a little blue sometimes. Sadness is just a fact of life, and it’s just as important as happiness.

“I don’t usually cry, especially not like this.”

That happens sometimes, it’s okay. Life can be painful and hurt every so often. It might help to talk about it though. Do you think it might help to talk about what’s bothering you?

“Well, it’s just…I’m so mad, Mister Rogers. The world just seems like it’s gone to total shi—like it’s gone rotten. I mean you’ve seen everything that’s going on right?”

Yes, I have. It can seem pretty scary at times, huh?

“Yes! It’s very scary. It just feels like, since you’ve died, the whole world—everybody, even me—has just gotten so mean.”

And do you know how that makes you feel?

“It makes me feel like we’ve all failed you, Mister Rogers.”

Oh now, that’s just silly, he laughs. You haven’t failed me. No one has failed me.

“It doesn’t feel that way.”

The truth is, James, I’m proud of you. I’m proud of all of you. The world has always been a scary, frightening place for us to live in. That’s a truth bigger than any one man, even me. I myself got frightened, many many times. But there is always hope, isn’t there? As long as one person is out there trying their best, to do good, to make people smile, to be a light in the darkness, then hope is never lost. Maybe you aren’t always successful, but you, and millions of others out there, are trying. The only way you could fail me, to fail period, is if you stopped trying.

“How can we better than we have been, Mister Rogers? How can we be like we were before?”

From time to time, we all need a little reminder of how to be nice, don’t we? I think the key would be to just love. Do you remember my song?

“What song?”

When your heart can sing another’s gladness, then your heart his full of love, he sang. When your heart can cry another’s sadness, then your heart is full of love…

“Is it really that simple?”

Yes, James. It really is.

I’ve become aware that the smiling, be-cardiganed form is slowly disappearing from my passenger seat. There’s so much more I need to talk about. So much more I need to say. His visage dimming, there is only a faint outline sitting where he used to be. I don’t have much longer.

“Mr. Rogers!” I scream.

Yes, James?

“Thank you, Mister Rogers. For everything. I really liked you. I’m glad I got to be your neighbor.”

I really liked you, too, James. And I’m glad I got to be yours.

I’m struck by the silence. I realize how good it felt to hear his voice again, to see him smile again, after all these years. To be reminded of his message. Maybe that’s the real weight of Morgan Neville’s documentary; to remind us of the simple power of joy and love, a message that, yes, is bigger than any single person, even if no one personified it better than Mister Rogers. It’s a kind of resurrection, coming at a time when, arguably, we need him more than ever. Maybe this movie will help. Maybe more people will see it and be reminded of the beautiful simplicity of his message again, and maybe the world will be just a little bit better.

I’ve stopped crying and can see clearly once more. I’m almost home. In fact, I’m in my own neighborhood. My head clear and my heart unburdened, I start to drive. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I realize that it really is a beautiful day in my neighborhood…a beautiful day for a neighbor.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now playing in select theaters.

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