Too often, “empathy” is a word used to end conversations. It signals a certain level of emotional enlightenment for which there is no rebuttal: “Empathy is the only thing that can heal our country” or “the President of the United States doesn’t have an ounce of empathy.”
True statements, sure, but “empathy” should be a word that raises more questions than it answers. It isn’t the result of a commandment to “be good” or “do good.” It’s both an ability and a craft. What we call empathy swirls at some conjunction of self-awareness, dedication, sensitivity, internal processing and outward expression. Some people, like Fred Rogers, live their whole lives at that conjunction; they’re gifted empaths. Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? commemorates the life of a TV empath who felt through others, anticipated the fears that could overtake their young lives, and countered by speaking to their innocence.
Most every American remembers Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the ways in which you remember it will impact how illuminating you find this documentary. (Neville has also directed the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom and the scintillating Best of Enemies: Buckley Vs. Vidal.) In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, vague impressions of the PBS children’s program, which ran from 1968 to 2001, will suddenly strike you as intentional. As it turns out, most everything about Fred Rogers was intentional.
My six-year-old self remembers the laconic pace of Fred Rogers’ puppetry. There was a reason for that. I remember the paradoxically serene and intense way Rogers looked out at me through the TV screen. There was a reason for that. I remember the way Rogers would emphasize the process and tactility behind everyday tasks, like the way he would take 22 seconds to untie and remove his shoes. There was a reason for that too.
No part of Rogers’ unlikely ascent to public television stardom, the endurance of his show, or the ways he chose to use the medium of television as a boon to child psychology was an accident. It was all rooted in a set of core beliefs that children must be spoken to with a certain care, which connects rather than dazzles and comforts rather than stimulates.
In retrospect, some of Rogers’ ethos comes off as radical. His show evolved at the same time as public television writ large, and their marriage was nearly perfect. In addition to detesting its pacing and colorful, faux-violent nonsense, Rogers argued that commercial television geared toward kids was trying to turn children into consumers — early onset adulthood through capitalism.
As far as the man himself, who passed in 2003 at age 74, this documentary reveals a few small details so astounding I won’t spoil them here. Though it skates pretty quickly through his early years, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is smart to address the commentary around Rogers’ life: the parodies on SNL and In Living Color, people raising unwarranted questions around his sexuality, and even the ludicrous, Fox News-driven assertion that Rogers’ telling kids they were lovable has led to an entitled generation.
But these speculations and accusations end up running off the documentary’s shoulders like water. You’ve mistaken something simple for something complicated, the film seems to say. Things were usually simple with Fred. When he broadcasted a show about nationalism and the Vietnam War in his program’s first month on the air, it wasn’t really about nationalism and war; it was about fear. In speaking to vast, underlying emotions, Rogers always sought the purest common denominator. In this case, the only commonality shared by every person on earth is that we were all once children.
Now, a documentary so centered on its subject’s life is always raised up or damaged by outside circumstances. Consider the climate in which it’s released, or how much or how often the person’s life is already discussed. For instance, you have to assume RBG has made so much money relative to other documentaries (nearly $10 million at the box office) because so many people are hungry for a story about a principled, progressive woman, whose career has been largely overlooked before the last five years. In a similar way, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? acts as a balm on ragged nerves and a quiet request to reach out to your fellow human. Emotionally speaking, it’s very timely.
Then, there’s the actual documentary craft, which is when I start to poke holes in something even as noble as a story about Mr. Rogers. I could take or leave any documentary that resorts to animated sequences to move from A to B instead of more interviews or clips. Then, there’s the question of whether this is an investigation of an icon or just a very touching hagiography. Those who survive Fred — his wife, his children, his coworkers, and the good folks running the Fred Rogers Center — are obviously acting as guardians of his mystique. Not only are they not sharing negative stories; it becomes clear at one point in the doc that they’re not sharing particularly strange or personal stories.
Of course, there’s no indication these people have anything to be afraid of, or that there any skeletons in Mr. Rogers’ cardigan closet. The documentary seems more like a project that’s taken on the spirit of a Neighborhood episode. Don’t fear the outside world, viewer. Turn down the volume and slow down your breathing.
For that protective, well-manicured feeling, it’s not a perfect documentary. But as a theatrical experience, it asks more of an audience emotionally, and gives more back, than most any piece of high drama or Oscar bait. And without staring you down and commanding you to go out there and be the Mr. Rogers you want to see in the world, it’s leading with an example of what’s possible — through empathy, and all the philosophy, love, and work that go into that word.