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Fred Rogers

“WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?” My rating: B+

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who for three decades starred in, wrote and scored PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is heartwarming, inspiring, funny, aspirational and, alas, kind of depressing.

Depressing because in Donald Trump’s America there is no longer room for a television mentor who eschews technical sophistication and speaks directly to children about their hopes and fears. Who tells every kid that he or she matters.

“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers tells us in an old interview. “Love or the lack of it.”

This moving, yea, tear-inducing documentary from Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) lays out the Mr. Rogers saga from its early days at a Pittsburgh station to Eddie Murphy’s parody on “SNL” and, much later, charges that Rogers was singlehandedly responsible for a generation of entitled underachievers who bought his line that “You are special.”

Among other things, Rogers is credited with saving public broadcasting. In 1969 Richard Nixon was preparing to strip PBS of its federal funding to help pay for the Vietnam War.  At a Congressional hearing a nervous Rogers set aside his prepared text and charmed the committee members by reciting the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”  Thick-skinned Sen. John Pastore, previously unfamiliar with Rogers’ work, was blown away: “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

This doc proves conclusively that Fred Rogers the man was precisely as he appeared on the little screen — an impossibly decent and compassionate guy who cared deeply about children and quietly reveled in their love (and without the faintest whiff of pedophilia).

In most regards Neville has given us a straightforward docubio: Lots of talking-head testimony from Roger’s family and co-workers, psychologists and even cellist Yo Yo Ma, who as a young man appeared on the show and became a lifelong devotee. Of course there’s tons of broadcast footage.  Backstage photos and home movies. Even some newly animated sequences that illustrate Rogers’ philosophy through Daniel, the hand puppet Tiger who was his almost constant onscreen sidekick and alter ego. (There’s footage of Rogers meeting with kids and pulling his puppets from a bag…the youngsters immediately begin talking to the felt creatures on his hands.)

For those of us too old to have experienced the Rogers magic (I was already in college when his show went national) it has been easy to dismiss him as laughably square and painfully low tech. With hindsight these become the finest of virtues — especially when contrasted with the hyperactive/overtly cruel nonsense that makes up most of children’s programming. (more…)

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