By Ann Hornaday for The Washington Post
Rating: 4 stars
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s admiring portrait of public television pioneer Fred Rogers, feels reverse-engineered to soothe the rapidly fraying nerves of a country mired in political and pop-culture food fights. Revisiting Rogers’s signature TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and the kind but steadfastly enigmatic man behind it, Neville has created a film that operates both as a dewy-eyed nostalgia trip and stirring appeal for civility.
In 1967, when “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” begins, Fred Rogers had been working in local Pittsburgh television and had attended the Presbyterian seminary when he began to conceptualize children’s programming that spoke thoughtfully and usefully to the emotional needs of a young audience. In a black-and-white clip of Rogers playing the piano, he compares musical modulations to the developmental stages of infants, toddlers and youngsters who, up until that point, had mostly been targeted by producers as a market to be molded and manipulated. “Maybe this is too philosophical,” he muses while he plays and thinks out loud. But he was convinced that, “what we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are.”
Anyone who came of age or reared children in the 1960s and 1970s knows what came next: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” became an enormous success and cultural force, offering kids a safe refuge while the outside world — and sometimes their own families — were buffeted by strife and social change. With his singsong voice and reassuring demeanor, Fred Rogers presented a benign, maybe even milquetoasty figure in his cardigan and lace-up sneakers. Underneath the bland exterior, he was acting as an ambassador for groundbreaking work in child psychology and what we now call media literacy, simply by acknowledging children’s fears and insecurities, and gently prodding them to question the values they were being sold elsewhere on the TV dial.
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