143, my friends
I spent 90 minutes completely misty-eyed through a documentary of all things. A documentary about the making of and the impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a 912-episode children’s show that ran in the United States from 1968-2001 thanks to the help of public broadcasting. For those unfamiliar with the show, you may find it strange that one can get so sentimental about such an innocuous premise; after all, what could a children’s show possibly impart to make such a profound impact on so many lives. Well aside from the documentary going into exquisite detail about many of the people affected by Fred Rogers, I figure I take this review to explain why I was barely able to contain tears throughout this documentary (and why the floodgates inevitably came crashing down).
It starts with discussing the odd beginnings for a man that would be beloved by many. Fred Rogers was studying to become a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when he saw how much an impact the medium of television was having on his country. Thinking he could use the medium as a tool for his own ministry, he slowly became interested in child psychology and realized a growing need for solid education in the first few years of a child’s life. But what got to me was that being a man of the cloth, he was loathed to pass judgment on anyone and the film explores his philosophy and religious views that his idea of God was one that loved all humans regardless of race, religion, gender or creed. For someone raised in a very privileged life, he felt to me that he was quite radical in his beliefs of equality and caring for others back in the 1960s. It was beliefs that he took great care into incorporating into his television program, while drawing real world parallels to events like the Vietnam War, the Robert Kennedy assassination, and the tumultuous process of desegregation in the United States.
And I guess I was barely keeping it together when you’re provided testimony from several members of the production team for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Rogers’ own family, who speak of the man as if they were following Christ. But they also provide insights into the man that make him feel so much more real as opposed to the impossible paragon of humanity he felt like to many. The family and crew take turns regaling the audience with amusing and heartwarming stories of Rogers’ behavior on and off the set that showed a man with flaws but one who spent every day trying to overcome them at every opportunity and showing the patience of a saint in the face of some incredible adversity. Such as the time Rogers testified before Congress in 1968 when President Nixon was pushing for budget cuts on American public broadcasting in order to save his show, and Tricky Dick had a Senator that was just ready to drop the axe. I’ll let the clip of Rogers’ testimony speak for itself, it’s in documentary but if you’ve never heard Rogers speak…well, now you’ll have an idea why I was having trouble keeping my composure.
I suppose my sentimentality was also because the on-screen persona of the show’s main host, Fred Rogers, was indeed identical to the real-life man. There’s been countless childhood heroes like Bill Cosby that turned out to be wretched monsters off screen, it seemed inevitable something would be revealed about the “dark side” of Fred Rogers. But (tiny spoiler warning for something that should be obvious), the worst thing about Mr. Rogers was that he was incessantly plagued with impostor syndrome of all things. For as much of an impact he had on generations of children, he felt the rest of the entertainment either didn’t understand what he was trying to do and many times wondered if what he was doing on the show was really worth doing at all. While tragic, the film very quickly demonstrates why those feelings were unfounded but they also demonstrated several episodes in which the show discussed Rogers’ anxiety in subtle ways that make perfect sense in hindsight.
But ultimately, what finally brought the tears out for me was towards the end when I realized my own failures in trying to be a patient and understanding person as Fred Rogers was. So many times in my life have I failed people or when my own cynicism clouded my judgment, and all those memories just came rushing back as I saw this man be hit with more trouble than I ever faced and he barely wavered. At the same time, the fact that he always strove for the good in people and tried to find it even in the most unlikeliest of persons or even in the bleakest of times like September 11, 2001, it was the most comforting and most life-affirming fact I never knew about him.
Fred Rogers was a man who showed the best of humanity, and this documentary perfectly captured why. Through his words and his actions, he left such a profound impact on countless lives across several generations that trying to sum up such a man’s life in a mere 90 minutes seems like a daunting task but for seasoned documentary director Morgan Neville, the tale of his Rogers’ life felt like second nature to him. Through well-placed musical choices and careful asides to what else was going on in popular culture, the film not only demonstrates why Rogers’ simplistic show resonated with so many but why it was so necessary. Rogers broke ground in how to speak to children in such a way that they would be eager to listen to what he had to say, in absolute defiance of what the modern media has slowly morphed into.
This is a powerful little film that took me on an emotional roller coaster, and no major stakes or conflict were required at all to do it. I’m honestly amazed at how strongly I reacted to this film that I have no choice but to award this with an absolutely enthusiastic…
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