The question isn't whether you will cry. You will cry.
The question isn't how much you will cry. You will cry extensively.
The question, which only emerges days into the aftermath of seeing this extraordinary (and, in all candor, somewhat devastating) new documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers, is this: What exactly are you crying about?
Possibility number one: good old-fashioned nostalgia. A huge chunk of the film consists of clips from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the public TV show for children Rogers created, wrote, and performed multiple roles in for 33 years. Among those who were raised either partially or predominantly by television, being on the receiving end of Fred Rogers's warm, gentle gaze is intensely evocative, almost womblike.
Seeing the way he spoke directly to his viewers, making sure we knew we were valued, cared for, seen, and known is a powerful reminder of the early validation the show provided. And learning that this style of address arose from radical education theory, developed by Rogers himself (in conjunction with learned colleagues like Spock, Braselton, and Erikson), about the benefits of being candid with children, only deepens the admiration.
But this footage also stirs up the memory of inarticulate childhood sorrow his attention helped to alleviate, taking you back to the time before you were capable of constructing the armor required for this nightmare of a world.
Possibility number two: the impossibility of such a human existing again, either on television or, indeed, on earth.
Probably the most interesting cinematic element of Won't You Be My Neighbor? is how conventional it is. Though clearly made with love and skill, it basically resembles most other docs you might chance upon during a 3 a.m. Netflix scan: Heads talk, archival clips roll, memories are shared, revelations revealed. Repeat.
The boilerplate for nonfiction film is to build the subject up for an hour or so, only to reveal the big turn—nobody knew X was a murderer/embezzler/CIA operative/kitten drowner/whatever. Even if you're on guard against your own cynicism, you find yourself wondering what Rogers's dark secret will be. The marriage? The kids? The Presbyterian ordainment? The backstage behavior? The business practices? When will it pop up like so many striped tigers behind so many imaginary trolley tracks to despoil his cherished legacy?
But the big turn in Neighbor is the revelation that Rogers really was that gentle, that kind, that deeply, utterly good. He represented a strain of religious conviction that seems inconceivable now. Through his show, he demonstrated the precepts of his faith—kindness, empathy, dignity, peaceful coexistence, safety, love—without ever once mentioning, or even gesturing toward, a deity.
As years passed, his chosen medium and the world that surrounded it got faster, nastier, and more ruthlessly commercial, but Rogers remained steadfast in his principles: the slow pace, the candor about tough subjects, the appreciation of silence. This commitment opened him up to ridicule (footage of Westboro Baptist Church orcs protesting his funeral and Fox News carrion condemning his influence fills you with indescribable rage) and parody (he seems hurt and angered by Eddie Murphy's "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" sketch). But millions of children were nourished by his work, however distant the memory of it has become.
Possibility number three: All of it. You're crying about all of it.