Anna Wheeler reviews A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. 04/02/2020
There are few films which make you feel you are being spoken to, and cared for, directly. And even fewer which show what it is to live a life of deep faith in a very public way. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which looks at the life of Fred Rogers from the perspective of a journalist assigned to profile him, is such a film. The American television personality, writer, puppeteer, musician, producer, and Presbyterian minister is best known for the preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001; and Fred Rogers Productions continues today.
Tom Hanks utterly inhabits Rogers with never a hint of impersonation. Matthew Rhys plays journalist Lloyd Vogel, the investigative journalist who receives an assignment to profile him for an article on what constitutes a ‘hero’ (the film was inspired by the 1998 article ‘Can You Say … “Hero”?‘ by Tom Junod, published in Esquire). What begins as a work trip which Vogel carries out with his usual cynicism turns into a meeting which will change his life and his family’s, that Rhys interprets with rawness and integrity.
The film opens on the TV set of Rogers’ show and his ‘Neighborhood of Make–Believe’. Early on he introduces us to the words forgiveness, sadness, and anger – asking the viewer how they feel, and asking them if they will be his friend. Existential philosophy for little ones. We’re then shown a scene from Vogel’s complex and less–than–happy family life. There are two defaults on view here – Rogers’ positive default of kindness, empathy, unhurriedness, and complete openness to discuss peoples’ difficulties. And Vogel’s negative default of just wanting to get the job done with a belief that Mr Rogers, and the human race generally, cannot really be that good or kind. Vogel is going through a family crisis of his own combined with a belief that he is broken, which is the catalyst for the lifeline that Rogers throws him.
Rogers doesn’t tell Vogel what he needs – he doesn’t even presume to know. He is simply there for him, and within that, his faith in Vogel allows him to see what he needs to change in his life. At one point, Vogel exclaims, ‘it’s me who is supposed to be interviewing you, not the reverse’. Their two defaults clash and Vogel finds he is unable to cope with the vulnerability he feels wrapped in Rogers’ honesty and love. The chemistry between Hanks and Rhys at these key moments of truth bearing is completely believable.
The beauty of the film is in the simplicity with which it portrays the sheer messy business of being human. Fred Rogers’ devotion to God is clear in the film (well done Hollywood!) but it is not ostentatious and embodies the opposite of aggressive evangelism. When he prays quietly each night, he names each person in full. When asked by Vogel how Rogers himself can afford to be so good and kind, his wife Joanne lets on that it’s not easy. It is a discipline, she says, it takes work and it’s not something that happens solely through his own efforts. One of the exercises he does to help himself, she says, is to consult the Scriptures. But he also allows himself to get angry and express this. He doesn’t aim for perfection – he aims for normality – which is not to be all good all the time – ‘and that’s ok’, says Rogers. The Bible passage Romans 7 v. 15 nudged at me, which speaks of not understanding our actions, of wanting to do good but failing to.
So what do we learn about being a child of God and the mess of being human from this portrayal of the American saint? Well, therein lies the answer. He was not a saint and would be the first to say so. He did not put himself on a pedestal. Through his constant concern for the other, Rogers showed how, if you are able to listen to someone, you yourself become richer in love. He had a talent for communicating truth to very young children and used it to remind people of all ages that, because we are ‘loved into being’, each person is enough.
The more I read about Fred Rogers and the more I dwell on the film, the more I think that the essence of heroism is grace itself – in his words, ‘knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people’. Recognizing that we are enough as we are and that within ourselves is a freely given Spirit to flourish, love and be loved – because that is the tool to be the best we can be. And this is a big deal to come to terms with in a world that rates the very opposite: results, competition, and speed, as the acts of heroism. To go against this is to be brave. The path Vogel was on before meeting Rogers advocated buying into this false sense of heroism; where the given–ness of grace is pushed aside and the natural direction to be loved and flourish was crushed.
Rogers’ ‘Neighborhood of Make–Believe’ might be labelled for children, but it is as real for adults as life itself. Precisely because within that neighborhood is the opportunity to recognize souls who are just like us: it is where we all start – and should keep returning. Vogel finds himself back there to re–learn his worth and how to opt–out of the negative default where adult life had pulled him. Jesus says ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18 v.3). Children have capacity to be receptive and give in equal measure, and the challenge is to hold onto those skills as adults – without them we lose the avenues to love, which have been given.
I left the cinema wishing Mr Rogers could be my mentor. His heroism was simply presenting everyone with the option of accepting themselves. ‘The best thing we can do is let people know they are precious and ask for help when we need it’, says Rogers. ‘And is that heroic?’, Vogel replies. The abundance of love which pours out at the film’s end should answer that.