By Gregory Crofton
So what’s all the fuss about the new documentary on Fred Rogers, the host and creator of the PBS show for children “WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?”
The arthouse theatre was packed when I watched the film, helping ticket sales top $15.8 million this weekend since its release in early June.
That’s a lot of money for a documentary to make at the box office, placing it between Michael Moore’s “BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE” (2001) and “MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE” (1991) on a list of top-grossing documentaries.
Key to the booming business it’s doing around the country has been its big-budget marketing campaign (especially for a documentary) made possible by the deep pockets of Comcast. But the real reason it’s been successful is that director Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for “20 FEET FROM STARDOM,” doesn’t get in the way of Rogers’ personal story. Neville tells it straight, at a fast clip, and emphasizes the right things.
I had heard that the film leaves many in tears. I didn’t find it to be overly sentimental, but rather a well-made biographical documentary about a sensitive man whose work had a powerful impact on our culture. Rogers understood children, how they learned, and how events could deeply affect them.
He also recognized the power of television and he was able to play a key role in preserving its educational use. When Congress threatened to shut down PBS in 1969, Rogers testified in the most convincing way that his show and others like it were needed on TV. The plea secured $20 million in funding for the network.
Rogers died at the age of 74 from stomach cancer. Apparently he didn’t like to visit the doctor even when he had a chronic health problem, a move you might imagine he’d tell his viewers not to emulate. This unconventional television star also didn’t like, but paid attention to, the numerous parodies made of his show over the years.
Rogers took his work very seriously and was sometimes bothered by the bits. He thought they overlooked his contribution to the field of child development. With that in mind he would likely be thrilled by “WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?” It humanizes him, points out his enormous body of work, and acknowledges the reverberating impact of his unique show.