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How a Documentary About Mister Rogers Turns Him Into a Rock Star for Our Time

'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' has become an indie sensation by viewing Fred Rogers as a smiling force of goodness who can fight the darkness.

It’s difficult, and always has been, for a documentary to break through the clutter and beam itself onto the radar of mainstream moviegoing. When one succeeds in doing so, it’s revealing to look at why. “RBG,” an incisive portrait of the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a major documentary hit, but it doesn’t take rocket science to grasp the reasons for its success. The film presents Ginsburg, quite rightfully, as a feminist superhero of progressive action — a crusader who’s become an icon of the resistance.

Yet who would have guessed that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s transporting documentary about Fred Rogers and his quirky oasis of children’s television, would also turn out to be a tale for our time? Audiences lining up to see it are probably having the same experience I did: You walk in thinking that you’re going to take a nostalgic museum tour of a TV moment you grew up with, and maybe get a glimpse into the mystery of the man who created it (key question: was he really like that? short answer: yes). When you walk out, though, you realize that you’ve seen something much, much bigger. In 2018, Mister Rogers has become the last thing anyone might have expected him to be: a countercultural figure, a radical who can show us the way. You probably think I’m kidding (or deluded), but after you see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” you’ll realize I’m not.

The word “counterculture” was hijacked 50 years ago, right around the time “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” made its debut as a nationally broadcast show, on Feb. 19, 1968. Since then, it has meant one thing and one thing only: the countercultural explosion of the ’60s. But “counterculture” doesn’t mean hippies and peace signs, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. According to my Webster’s dictionary, it means “a culture with values and mores that run counter to those of established society.” The ’60s were a counterculture, and so were the musical/lifestyle insurrections of punk, disco, and MTV. The New Hollywood was a counterculture, and so was “Star Wars.” In the late ’70s, the rise of the Christian Right was a counterculture, and so, 40 years later, is the authoritarian revolution of Donald Trump.

The greatest pop culture has often been counterculture, because it’s the most exciting. It gains voltage — a kind of electric friction — by cutting against the grain of where the society is at. Pop culture is the pendulum swinging. And the culture we have now is one of rage.

Howard Beale in “Network” exhorting his viewers to lean out the window and shout “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” — in 2018, that’s more or less every damn one of us. (We’re just leaning out a digital window.) It’s the tenor of the times, but it’s also an addiction. Our president is a rageaholic, and so are many of his followers, but those of us on the liberal-left are guilty as well. When I read my Twitter feed, I can agree with seven out of 10 tweets and still feel as if I’m part of a cult of absolutism, one that’s hooked on self-righteousness. That’s the rationalization for it all (desperate times call for desperate measures; you’ve got to fight fire with fire; when they go low, we go high…but maybe low too). Yet the cycle of rage that’s produced a cultural civil war in this country may not end with one side standing in victory atop the smoking ruins of the other. It may end with the smoking ruins dragging all of us down.

If Donald Trump ceased to be president tomorrow, we’d still have an agonizingly divided and rageaholic society. Our government stopped working (at least the way it’s supposed to work) long before Trump got into office, and that’s one of the reasons he won. The clogged, corrupt government machine is the projection of a society at war with itself. To win the war, we’ve got to solve the war.

That’s where Fred Rogers comes in. His show as we know it began in the early ’60s, when it was broadcast on Canada’s CBC, and from the start it was out of sync and out of the box. With primitive sets and a handful of toy-store puppets, most of them voiced by Rogers himself (who had an impish amateur-hour glee as a puppet actor), he didn’t quite “put on a show” at all. Instead, what he did was to slow himself down to the rhythms of a child. He seemed to speak directly to them.

His premise was to view children as people of complex feeling who needed to be experienced and treated as the individuals they are. That’s what he meant when he said that each child was “special.” He wasn’t doing some lame run-up to the everyone-gets-a-prize!, if-each-of-us-is-special-none-of-us-is-special culture that conservatives, in their armchair Ayn Rand huff, later accused him of doing. He was saying: Each child, if you truly listen to him or her, is a universe of thought and feeling, and what we owe every one of them is to hear who, exactly, they are. That’s how you build a sane society.

Fred Rogers was a devout Christian (and a lifelong Republican) who trained to be a minister, and what he applied, on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was the key teaching of Christ: Love thy neighbor. When we remember growing up with Mister Rogers, what we think of is corny, goofy, and a touch innocuous: this insanely gentle man with the ’50s “Father Knows Best” haircut and the slightly weak chin and the disarmingly sweet smile, who with his piercing eyes and bushy eyebrows looked like he could be David Byrne’s saintly brother — and yes, part of the joke of Mister Rogers is that he was so clean and kind and tender and wholesome that he seemed to be the sort of man who couldn’t exist, who was too good to be true, and therefore must be some sort of secret Norman Bates, an angelic kids’ host with skeletons in his closet. Surely he must be hiding something; surely he must be weirder than we thought.

A lot of people wondered if he was gay (Tom Snyder, in his fumbling and fulminating way, basically comes out and asks him that in an interview clip we see), but the glorious upshot of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is that Rogers’ real secret was the secret of all religious feeling: that it is radical, that the call to love your neighbor as yourself isn’t a slogan to hang in your kitchen with flowers around it — it’s a decision you make at every moment, to view every man, woman, and child on earth as your neighbor. If you don’t see and feel that, and act on it, then you’re just another narcissist with a kitchen slogan.

The word that Fred Rogers talks about is love. And while it’s easy to say “Great! That sounds like it was made for a Hallmark card,” the more you re-experience his TV work in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” and the more you’re draped in the soothing zen of his presence, the more you realize that he meant love the way that the Beatles meant love: as an overwhelming force that unites the world, that works within us and without us. Romantic love, spiritual love, community love, even political love: all are fused by the impulse of empathy and fellow feeling. (The love you take is equal to the love you make.) That’s what Rogers cultivated in his on-screen fellowship with children, only seen now, in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the Rogers mystique also speaks to a feeling about adults — that they, as well, need to be listened to.

There’s a dramatic feature in the works about Mister Rogers, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Marielle Heller, that will center on his friendship with the venerable magazine writer Tom Junod (who speaks with great insight in the documentary). The time is certainly right for a Fred Rogers biopic, though this one will have a high bar to clear. To see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is to be moved, in the end, to tears by the audacity of what Rogers incarnated: the belief that we stop listening to each other at our peril, and that the spirit of higher listening — of love — could be spread through the medium of television. Fred Rogers, in his way, was an activist (in one startling clip, we see him literally save public television with his testimony before Congress). But he was also a forward-thinking individual who says, in one unusually direct and serious interview clip, that it’s essential for us to make “goodness” a foundation of “the so-called next millennium.” That’s the counterculture we need now. What he means, I think, is that if we don’t ratchet up the goodness, there may not be a next millennium.

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