It may have been a simpler time, but Mr. Rogers from the beginning never shied away from the complexities or the value of children's feelings and thoughts. One of his first episodes in 1968 has his puppet King Friday XIII ("one of the few remaining benevolent despots") erecting a large wall to keep out the people from outside his kingdom. Through either direct or indirect learning, Fred Rogers talked about acceptance, divorce, and assassination (in an episode made after the Robert F. Kennedy assassination) among other topics.
Won't You Be My Neighbor does have a few interviews scattered throughout its run, but it for the most part thrives on significant episodes of the long-running series Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as well as a few clips of Mr. Rogers talking himself, including one that opens the movie where he talks about guiding children through the modulations of life. It would be accurate to say that it isn't an accurate portrayal of Fred Rogers himself -- there is very little about his childhood or his private life. There's not necessarily an even judgment of his character, as everyone on screen only has glowing, positive things to say about him. But to criticize that aspect of it completely misses the point of the documentary, which is that Neville feels so strongly about the importance of Mr. Rogers' hopes and how especially pertinent his message is today.
Time and time again, Mr. Rogers comes back to the value of each human being and it shows in all of his relationships -- from mentoring Yo-Yo Ma on being in the public spotlight, to writing back to every single one of his fan letters, and even to his family (one of his sons ruefully described him as the "second Christ"). It's not a message meaning we are entitled or owed something, which one Fox News segment attempts to twist into -- rather, it's a message that empowers us to owe something even as we are told of our inherent worth as a human being.
There's certainly more to the man that this documentary is able to convey, and yet Neville carries the spirit of Fred Rogers forward in this film for it's impossible to sit through it without feeling the emotion of the man's life and wanting to live to the full potential of it. Neville weaves a strong connective thematic tissue as the concise documentary unfolds. His love for the man is stunningly apparent, as is the love that Mr. Rogers felt for humanity.
Won't You Be My Neighbor will receive a wide release June 8th.