"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" - ★ ★ ★ ½
He was a man of faith who inspired faith in man.
Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, became the unlikeliest TV superstar.
He planned a career in the seminary until he saw a man get a pie in the face on early television. Instead of merely dismissing TV as a "vast wasteland" (as Northwestern University grad and former Federal Communications Commission chief Newton Minow famously did in 1961), Rogers saw an opportunity to create positive programming for America's children.
Morgan Neville's short and extremely sweet documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" chronicles Rogers' pioneering journey as the creator and host of the PBS series "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
For three decades, Mr. Rogers came into people's living rooms, donned a cardigan sweater and proceeded to defy every conventional rule about how to create a successful TV show.
Mr. Rogers' sparse neighborhood sets looked crude and cheap. He often employed silence in his talks, once allowing 60 seconds to quietly tick down on-screen to demonstrate the length of a minute.
Rogers, or sometimes his sock puppet alter-ego Daniel Striped Tiger, talked to children frankly about death, divorce, assassination and other topics, but with a generous dose of reassurance geared to dissipate fear and affirm youngsters' feelings.
When news broadcasts showed white racists refusing to allow black citizens into public swimming pools, Mr. Rogers invited policeman Mr. Clemmons (African-American actor/singer Francois Clemmons) to take off his socks and shoes and join him in a wading pool.
Neville's documentary covers a lot of material in short bursts, interviewing Rogers' co-workers, wife and children (one says he felt like he'd been raised by "the second Christ").
This iconoclast defied preconceptions of masculinity with his pastel color choices, gentle nature and nurturing voice. "Tomorrow" talk show host Tom Snyder even inquired about Rogers' sexuality, bluntly asking "Are you square?"
His gay co-star Clemmons confirms that Rogers never as much emanated "a gay vibe."
Rogers comes off so clean and conflict free in Neville's doc that boneheaded media commentators actually did this movie a favor by stirring up some controversy. They charged Rogers was personally responsible for creating a generation of entitled narcissists -- just because he viewed all children as "special."
Rogers died of cancer in 2003 after a lifetime of selfless dedication, first to America's kids, then to public broadcasting.
We see how he charmed $20 million in PBS funding from a stingy Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969.
He made the most of this beautiful day.
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Directed by: Morgan Neville
Other: A Focus Features release. At Chicago's Century Centre and River East and Evanston's Cinemark. Rated PG-13 for language. 94 minutes