As of late, it feels like the world has entered a bit of a Mr. Rogers Reinnaissance. He’s been gone since 2003 and yet last year we had Morgan Neville’s edifying documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There are podcasts galore including Finding Fred and then Mr. Rogers’s words, whether before the Senate Committee or pertaining to scary moments of international tragedy, seem to still provide comfort and quiet exhortation to those in need.
Now to the array we can add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Although partially fictional, it borrows inspiration from Fred Rogers and his real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod. Their interview and subsequent meetings became the basis of a front-page spread in Esquire Magazine. That was back in 1998.
Surely, this cannot be a mere chance at publicity. Too much time has passed in this regard for it to make a shred of commercial sense. And yet here we are in 2019 welcoming in yet another tribute to Fred Rogers. The man who taught many of us once upon a time (including this viewer) what it means to realize you are special, that there are ways to deal with feelings, and what a lovely thing it is to be a good neighbor and reach out an inquisitive hand to learn and ask questions.
What Marielle Heller’s gently radical film does well is capturing the spirit of the man. He was always so caring and engaged with others as a listener and concerned friend. There was real intentionality present and a candor toward both children and adults within him. But he was also humble and deferential. These qualities are much admired and somehow so difficult to replicate in our own lives. But the beauty of this portrait is the reminder that no one’s life is picture-perfect.
Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys) is a man with a lot of pent-up, unresolved anger. He’s married now and has a child. But he still holds onto the grief of a beloved mother who died when he was young and an estranged father (Chris Carter) who was never around and is now trying to make an effort at reconciliation in his old age. Lloyd must come to terms with his own issues. But simultaneously his editor has enlisted him to write something out of his comfort zone. It’s an article on a hero: Fred Rogers. Here is the crux of the story.
So Mr. Rogers isn’t necessarily the focal point inasmuch as the film has his fingerprints all over it. In screenwriting terms, he is the helper and in life or film, there is no better title for the man. Because in Lloyd’s own family issues and private hurts, we see a projection of all of us sitting out in the dark.
In fact, just as the man in the red cardigan spoke to us throughout our lives, he’s speaking to Lloyd; he forms a relationship. This is not a television neighbor. He is a cinematic one, but it’s purely semantics because it doesn’t make much difference when Mr. Rogers is concerned. As you might have guessed, he likes Lloyd just the way he is. We witness the man change from a cynical, distant workaholic to someone who is trying to change and reach out to others in love. It’s imperfect, but it’s a start.
Tom Hanks in many ways is too much Tom Hanks for me to lose him in Mr. Rogers and this works out fine. Again, he captures the spirit of the man. As best as can be gathered, it comes down to two integral pieces. First, there is the genuine candor.
The words coming out of his mouth, the salutations, the affirmations, even the words spoken with a puppet on-hand (like Daniel Striped-Tiger) run the risk of sounding insincere and making a joke out of Mr. Rogers. But that would run contrary to the man himself who gave attention and respect to everyone no matter who they were. Thankfully, Hanks extends his subject the same courtesy. The words leaving his lips don’t sound exactly like our television neighbor, but they feel like him.
Equally important, Hanks gets down the rhythm of Mr. Rogers. So much about him comes down to how to utilize time, slowing down and being okay with stillness and silence. Heller aids with one brazenly unassuming scene where Rogers entreats his friend to take a quiet minute (as he famously did at the Emmys) to think about the people who got him there. The movie obliges including a brief cameo of fan favorites Joanne Rogers and David Newell. Again, in 2019 it all feels a bit quaint and yet — if I speak for myself — it’s also appealing.
Here is the man who built his life on disciplines. He woke up early to pray for his acquaintances and read his morning devotionals. He swam daily at his local pool. Letter correspondence was a rich part of his relationships. But they weren’t disciplines for mere discipline’s sake. All these things beget goodness and kindness toward other people. Because Fred followed the greatest rule: Loving others as you love yourself.
Yet the movie points out he wasn’t a saint. Not that there are hidden caveats to his characters. (For the record, he wasn’t a marine and he didn’t have tattoos.) Rather, he was human like each of us, and it is possible to grow in these same skills no matter the skeletons we have in the closet and the messiness under our rugs.
The movie has a couple bizarre dream sequences, but these are Lloyd’s and not Mr. Rogers. They are part of his emotional journey, tapping into his various attributed issues going back into his own childhood and a bit of his mind’s own neighborhood of make-believe.
Otherwise, Heller’s film does well to bring satisfying touches of the original show. There’s that unmistakable tint to the camera on-set that takes me back. That front entryway. The closet. The zip of the zipper. The toss of a shoe.
The script penned by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue uses this familiar format of the program as a comforting window into Lloyd’s story. It allows us back into the world even as it puts us in touch with someone existing in our own.
Miniatures were also always an integral part of the show indicating Mr. Rogers’s home and where he was off to in the neighborhood. The movie entends this by utilizing models to chart the majority of Lloyd’s travels between Pittsburgh and New York. One other unique commute has Lloyd and Mr. Rogers receiving an impromptu serenade of “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on the Subway.
Fittingly, music holds such a special place in the film, both the television set sequences and outside its scope. Johnny Costa’s distinct jazz playing always colored and left such memorable accents on the show’s myriad of interludes, whether it was the opening and closing tunes, the skittering of fish, or ready-made trolley sound effects. Mr. Rogers had such a gift for music as well. His compositions and aphorisms were deceptively simple but filled with so many brilliant articulations of content (“Everything mentionable is manageable”).
If they are gauged toward children that’s wonderful. I was struck by “Just Do It” playing over the credits — a less-remembered song I probably hadn’t heard since childhood; it all flooded back in a euphoric moment of recollection. Only as an adult do you begin to realize the impact this man had, how formative a television program could be. We want to write it off and cast off “childish things” and yet give him a second look and you realize how timeless he is. Why else would we be coming back to his well of modest wisdom?
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, in a landscape that feels more antagonistic, mean-spirited, and divisive than ever, Mr. Rogers feels like a beacon from a happier time. During the film, I thought 400 words were far too short to chronicle the man. Sure enough, Lloyd took 10,000 instead. I would probably be capable of doing much the same. I can only gather many of us have a story about Mr. Rogers and how he impacted us.
For me, it was a photo signed and addressed in his immaculate calligraphy: With kindest regards from Fred Rogers. That was in 2003. He would pass away from stomach cancer in February of that same year. I lost a good friend that day…
When I was frightened after 9/11 he provided reassurance, when I doubted he reenforced my worth, when I didn’t know how to love my neighbor he showed me the way with graciousness. Because the brilliance of Mr. Rogers is how he backed up words and songs with action and feelings of radical affection. I want to be like that. I want us all to be like that. It can still be a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Sometimes we just need a reminder. We are all human. Just like Mr. Rogers. But we’re also special just the way we are.