A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Directed by Marielle Heller
(Rated PG, 2019)
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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is being marketed primarily on the strength of the cultural similarity between Mr. Rogers, America’s most wholesome neighbor, and Tom Hanks, the lovable actor sometimes called “America’s dad.” It’s a good casting choice, but it might mislead viewers into thinking that Hanks will be as much at the center of the film as he is in Cast Away or Forrest Gump.
Though it opens with a loving recreation of the iconic intro of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, this time with Hanks donning the cardigan and sneakers, the film jarringly refocuses on the troubles of a reporter — Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) — in the first minutes of the movie. The camera moves up out of the miniature neighborhood, revealing a tiny replica of Mr. Rogers’ own Pittsburg, and floats away to a childlike recreation of New York, where the troubled Vogel works as a journalist. From here on out the center of the story will be Vogel’s New York — his office at Esquire where he has a reputation as a tough-minded investigative journalist; his apartment just off a dark, dumpster-filled alleyway where he lives with his loving wife and young son; and his troubled relationship with his estranged father (Chris Cooper).
Inspired by an excellent Esquire on Mr. Rogers by Tom Junod from 19981 ,Vogel is annoyed by being assigned a puff piece on a seemingly saccharine saint. His wife is worried that her husband’s dirt-digging tendencies will damage the image of his beloved subject. Before he leaves, she warns, “Lloyd, don’t ruin my childhood.” Vogel’s own childhood, it quickly becomes apparent, is already well-ruined by his cheating father, as the viewer sees their argument at his sister’s wedding turn into a fistfight.
Face bruised and bloodied, Vogel leaves quickly for Rogers’ in Pittsburg. The film pictures this with a cheeky image of a miniature plane, with the puppetry stick clearly visible, taking off from New York. Though the use of imagery is clever, it’s a reminder of the sharp contrast between the awkward charm of Mr. Rogers’ PBS ministry and the bland drama of Vogel’s world. I suspect that many viewers will, like me, wish that the film could have found a way to find drama in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood instead of importing it from a make-believe Manhattan.
Arriving on set, the film shows us Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, not allowing his television responsibilities to interfere with his ministry. Vogel and the crew impatiently watch as Mr. Rogers painstakingly tries to relate to a young visitor on set. The boy swings his sword violently around, as an aged Rogers kneels before him, vainly trying to connect, while his parents squirm with embarrassment. Rogers finally says the magic words, and the boy puts away his sword and hugs him. The drama of the film will re-encapsulate this moment as Mr. Rogers ministers to the angry Vogel, finally enabling him to put away his own anger and reconcile with his father.
Junod recounts a similar story in his original Esquire piece. Struggling to communicate with a little boy carrying a sword, Mr. Rogers whispers something in his ear. Junot writes,
We were heading back to his apartment in a taxi when I asked him what he had said….“Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. And so that’s what I told him. I said, ‘Do you know that you’re strong on the inside, too?’ Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”2
More than the film, the Esquire piece points to a central feature of Mr. Rogers’ televised ministry: to tell children that they are worthy of love just the way they are. The lesson that Vogel needs to hear appears much later in the film when Vogel’s father is dying and the whole family is visited by the unlikely television star. In his characteristically direct-yet-kind way, Mr. Rogers broaches the subject of death. Though we often avoid such topics, Rogers’ work always addressed tough topics head-on. His show addressed topics such as the assassination of political figures like Bobby Kennedy. Sitting in the family living room, we hear Hanks speak these words: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and whatever is mentionable is manageable.” Vogel’s struggle has been to mention his anger with his father’s abandonment. Only after he is able to speak about these feelings is he able to manage them and move past them.
Though I’m underwhelmed by the film, this scene points to an aspect of Mr. Rogers’ work that is important to bear in mind, if it’s less culturally relevant. At present, it’s easy to see Mr. Rogers as a kind of patron saint of niceness, who stands in sharp contrast to the vitriolic rhetoric of the American moment. But Mr. Rogers’ televised ministry goes deeper than this rather superficial value. Much of Rogers’ work went beyond the merely therapeutic value of affirming children in their vulnerability to helping them to address their emotions in order to handle them healthily.3
In a much better film, the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, we see an interchange between Mr. Rogers and a testy senator in 1969.4 Summoned to help defend the 20 million dollar PBS budget, Rogers wins over the senator in under seven minutes with a heartfelt statement about his personal mission:
I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.5
Part of the power of Rogers’ testimony is simply the earnestness with which he speaks. It’s rare to find people who say they genuinely care and actually seem to mean it. But there’s an awkward turn that Rogers makes in the testimony that goes beyond the sort of affirmation that we’re used to hearing from mass media. Nearly every Disney movie, it seems, tells us to be ourselves. Rogers repeats some words from a song that he sings on his program that affirm childlike emotions, and he offers a way to do something constructive with them. Looking directly at the grumpy senator, Rogers rhymes,
What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite?….It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong….I can stop when I want to. Stop when I wish. Can stop stop stop stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this and to know the feeling is really mine.6
Anyone who watches the scene will note that this is an unusual thing to hear on the Senate floor, or anywhere, really. But it’s powerful. Moments after reciting the song, the senator declares, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”7
The transformational mission behind Mr. Rogers’ work is on display in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Vogel’s inner child is revealed and healed because of Rogers’ willingness to speak straight to the heart of the matter. This is also, no doubt, why a low-budget PBS program continues to fascinate us.
At a central moment in the film, Mr. Rogers and Vogel go for lunch. Viewers of the documentary will recognize the faces of Rogers’ real-life family and friends. In a reality-breaking moment, the restaurant grows quiet as Rogers challenges Vogel to sit quietly and think for a minute about the people who have loved us into being. The film pauses as Hanks breaks the fourth wall and stares directly at the audience. Like Mr. Rogers, the filmmakers want to look through the screen at each of us and offer an emotional challenge. Will we, the passive viewers, use this as a chance to practice gratitude? Much like the question that Mr. Rogers sings to us at the start of each of his episodes, it’s a rare, genuine moment of cultural connection. Through Mr. Roger’s ministry, and to a lesser extent the film that celebrates him, each of us is asked the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” —Philip Tallon
Philip Tallon, PhD, is an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, where he chairs the apologetics department and also teaches in the Honors College. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2012) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).
- Tom Junod, “Can You Say…Hero?” Esquire, November, 1998, https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/.
- Junod, “Can You Say…Hero?”
- For commentary on Fred Rogers’ theological views, listen to my interview on the Postmodern Realities podcast, episode 150, https://www.spreaker.com/user/hank-hanegraaff/pmr-episode-150.
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features, 2018), documentary film directed by Morgan Neville, https://www.focusfeatures.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor/.
- “May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers Testifies Before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications,” YouTube, February 8, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=13&v=fKy7ljRr0AA&feature=emb_logo.
- “May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers Testifies.”
- “May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers Testifies.”