By Steven S. Drachman.
I popped into the Angelika theater in downtown Manhattan last night to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary about Mister Rogers. The movie has received lavish praise —the New York Times assures us that this is one of the two best movies playing in theaters today, and a widely shared web review proclaims it “the best documentary ever made.” The Entertainment Weekly review got right to the point in its headline, calling Neighbor “the film we need right now.”
The Angelika had the film playing in two theaters, and it sold out hours before the screening; the film is also playing in two other movie houses in Manhattan.
The audience of adults wept, and two women in the theater hugged each other as the film ended.
All this for a movie that, while quite good and deeply moving, is edited in a pretty typical documentary format, the sort of thing you might have seen on PBS thirty years ago during fundraising week. Some TV clips, some talking heads, family members and professional acquaintances speaking admiringly. Stylistically, this could have been a documentary about Buddy Hackett or Johnny Carson or Gerald Ford. Or you.
Neighbor tells the story in a straightforward fashion, from Rogers’ awkward and sickly childhood, his early TV career behind the scenes, and his seminary education, to his eventual rise to kid-TV superstardom. As the movie comes to a close, it darkens: we see various Mister Rogers television satires of various levels of cruelty; Fox News and the Wall Street Journal seize on Rogers as a villain in the culture wars (Fox calls him an “evil, evil man”); the inevitable sad death; and finally, at his funeral, anti-gay protesters chanting the usual obscenities (you know what they said, and I will not repeat it here). While the film doesn’t really mention it as clearly as it should, Rogers later agreed (in an interview with the Village Voice in the 1980s) that his message — “I like you just the way you are” — was absolutely intended to reach and reassure children struggling with their sexuality. He meant exactly what he said, and he didn’t hedge on it, a more-than-risky approach during the 1980s, which I gather was the reason for the protest.
So why do we need this movie, and why now?
First, it is reassuring to learn that someone like Mister Rogers really was the way he seemed, that niceness can be real. Mister Rogers meant a great deal to many of us, when we were very very young. During the great reckoning, the better someone’s public image, the worse he seems to be as a person. So we spot a headline about Mister Rogers, and we hold our breath. What now? we ask as a nation. What did he do? First Bill Cosby, now Mister Rogers? But everything has turned out OK. What you are hearing out there in the country at large is a collective sigh of relief. Are human beings fundamentally good, or fundamentally bad? Well, of course, fundamentally bad … except for Mister Rogers, and firemen. And so there is hope.
The second reason is one that is more political, and a little harder to justify. In America today, Mister Rogers is being portrayed as somehow radical and subversive (and even radically subversive). But I really count only two remotely political examples in the film. In its first week on the air, Neighborhood featured a story about a tyrannical leader (the unreconstructed King Friday the 13th) who sought to build a wall around his kingdom to keep out change. Mister Rogers cast a black man as a police officer, and let him cool his feet in Mister Rogers’ wading pool. The latter example was brave for the late 1960s, less brave for the 1970s (the film doesn’t specifically place the exact year of the clip), and the former had nothing to do with immigration or Trumpism, and could be seen as a general and uncontroversial jab at Luddites during the space age.
Instead, here is why his message seems political today.
First, if the nation is split between red states and blue states, with its own morals and ethics and even separate entertainment, then if, today, a single individual could present moral and ethical leadership every day, which the vast majority of tiny children across the country were to watch, then he would be subverting our current national culture of hostile tribalism. However, Mister Rogers was able to do what he did because of our limited viewing choices; today, he could not possibly reach the audience that he did then. Sending a message to the children of the entire country, rather than targeting red states or blue states, was the way we did things back then. It wasn’t radical then.
Second, if we have a national culture of meanness, then niceness and respect for others seems to subvert that national culture. Morgan Neville, the film’s director, calls this “radical kindness.”
And progressives today seek to claim Mister Rogers, a lifelong Republican, as their own, simply because he is nice. If the political world is run by the Trumpists, and if the Trumpists are seen as setting the political culture, radical kindness is seen as a political act of opposition. (The Huffington Post wrote a particularly unconvincing brief for Rogers’ radicalism, which included his fondness for tofu burgers.) If he were alive today, he might even be part of the Resistance, this argument goes.
Even Rogers’ widow has given credence to this idea.
“We have somebody leading us right now who is not a forgiver,” Joanne Rogers said on Nightline. “His values are very, very different from Fred’s values – almost completely opposite.” She added that if he were alive today, “I think he might have to [speak out against President Trump]. That would be political.”
I humbly disagree. The politicization of everything is damaging to the nation, the way partisan politics has become such a non-stop spectator sport that it sometimes seems that every citizen is plotting electoral strategy, and I do not think that Fred Rogers would have any time for it. Today I think the message we need most of all is that we are still a single country, that families and friends can stay together, that the country still has a single, shared mission, and that we as individuals can and should still get along. In other words, we need messages that are not partisan or political. This was one reason why I was excited about the new Roseanne show, and so bitterly disappointed by its self-immolation.
I like to think Mister Rogers, of all people, would not publicly pick sides. I certainly do not think that Mister Rogers would be a Trumpkin, tweeting conspiracy theories in the dead of night — I think he would hate Trumpism as much as he wife surmises — but I also do not believe that he would become a political mouthpiece of the Democratic party. I am sure that he would gently express his views when asked, as he once favored a nuclear freeze and opposed the wearing of fur. But I like to think that he would not “speak out,” either against the president or against his fellow citizens. I like to think he would see that there is enough speaking out already. Instead, I think that if Mister Rogers were alive today, he would see his mission as bringing a divided nation together, and his gentle message for children would hardly change.
But would it matter? Could Mister Rogers make any difference today? Can anyone speak to one America anymore?
Probably not; and that may be the biggest reason for the tears at the Angelika last night.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books.