Every few years, a bunch of pundits tries to convince us that irony is over and earnestness is in. They're never even close to right — can you imagine social media without the wink emojis, actual and implied? — but irony-free pockets have existed in America. To experience one for ourselves, we need only revisit "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
The new documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), profiles Fred Rogers, who created and starred in the beloved children's program that bears his name. The show ran from 1966 to 2001 (with one three-year break), mostly on PBS, which ensures that two generations have Rogers' calm, folksy vocal intonations imprinted on their cortexes. The film opens with that voice over a dark screen, wringing an almost Pavlovian response from the audience: What have we lost?
It doesn't matter if you were a smart-ass kid who thought the minister-turned-TV-star's show was boring. It was boring; one of Neville's interviewees, a producer of the show, describes Rogers' method as the opposite of everything that defines compelling television. He changed his shoes on camera, for God's sake.
Yet there's something about the man's unhurried rhythms, his plain speech, his unashamed earnestness, his ability to listen that sticks with you in a Jimmy Stewart way. Fifteen years after Rogers' death, "Mister Rogers" feels oddly relevant, maybe even revolutionary.
Neville banks on this timeliness. Although the question "What would Mister Rogers be doing today?" isn't posed out loud until the end of the doc, it's implicit throughout. Clips show how Rogers used his platform to help children process cultural upheavals, from Robert F. Kennedy's assassination to 9/11. ("What does 'assassination' mean?" a puppet asks falteringly.) Today, with images of frightened children on every front page and feed, it's impossible not to wonder how this lifelong Republican and champion of kids would have responded. What would he say to a kid who asked what "undocumented" means?
While Neville has clearly set out to make another crowd-pleasing documentary like his Oscar-winning Stardom, Neighbor isn't straight hagiography. Through interviews with people like gay cast member François Clemmons, the movie addresses (though not in depth) the limits of Rogers' progressivism. It covers the broader cultural impact of the show, including parody and backlash. (Surprise: Rogers has been blamed for making the millennials feel "special.")
While the film skimps on Rogers' background, it does explore how playing with mangy hand puppets helped this grown man face emotions he'd been raised to suppress. Neville's only real misstep is using occasional animated sequences featuring Rogers' puppet alter ego, Daniel Striped Tiger, to plumb his psyche. Those bits have a polished whimsy that feels out of place; the clips of Rogers as "Daniel," speaking candidly with kids about loss and anger, are far more revealing.
Rogers didn't like superhero stories (he thought they lied to children), but sometimes he was a bit of a superhero. The film shows us how, in 1969, he used sheer soft-spoken conviction to secure $20 million in funding for PBS from a skeptical Senate committee chair. Captain America, another irony-free icon, couldn't have done it better.
And, if it's tough to imagine humility, optimism and a belief that every person matters having such power in public life today, well, maybe that's our business. Instead of asking what Mister Rogers would be doing to address the troubles of 2018, one of Neville's interviewees points out, we should heed his example and ask what we're doing.