It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The new film about Fred Rogers and a cynical journalist is a movie we need right now.
It is fitting that the new movie about Fred Rogers and his friendship with a hard-bitten reporter is getting universal acclaim. At this time of bitter and wearying divisiveness, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reminds us that Fred Rogers, a beloved figure to children and adults, always emphasized kindness and acceptance, and that while anger is often understandable, it can and must be controlled.
Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel are both superb in this film, based on true events. In 1998, reporter Tom Junod was assigned a 400-word profile of Rogers for a special issue of Esquire magazine devoted to America’s most inspirational people. In the movie, Junod’s character is Lloyd Vogel, a writer with an attitude who seems insulted at the assignment.
“You hired me as an investigative journalist,” Vogel complains to his boss. “I don’t do puff pieces.”
“Four hundred words. Play nice,” his editor answers tartly. In fact, Vogel’s cynical nature had become a liability in his career. As the film plays it, Fred Rogers was the only interview subject selected by the magazine who agreed to work with Vogel.
Rogers turns what others see as a deficiency into a strength.
Vogel is flummoxed right away upon meeting Mr. Rogers. Sitting together on the soundstage of his television program, he can barely hold Rogers’ gaze, one that conveys a deep and uncanny understanding. Rogers had done his homework, having read many of Vogel’s pieces. He understands that this man is in emotional pain. In fact, he carries an industrial-sized load of bottled-up anger from his father’s abandonment of the family at a time of crisis many years earlier.
Rogers begins asking Vogel about his own childhood during their meeting, and Vogel cuts him off: “I’m asking the questions here.” But Vogel quickly realizes that Fred Rogers is much more than a children’s entertainer who speaks a little slowly and who doesn’t bother to hide the fact that he is the voice behind his puppets. He is a man old enough to be Vogel’s own father, and watching Mr. Rogers relate to all children – both the ones he meets and the millions he doesn’t – with such authentic acceptance and affection touches him deeply.
Suddenly, 400 words seems completely inadequate to capture the essence of this inspirational man. Eventually, he turns in a 10,000-word feature titled, “Can You Say Hero?” Mr. Rogers graced the magazine cover.
For viewers like me who saw last year’s outstanding documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this is a marvelous follow-up. It builds on our appreciation of Fred Rogers as a complex man of faith, whose personal sense of mission was to help children deal with and manage their own difficult feelings and to feel valued. On each show, he validated children for being who they are, in all their God-given precious individuality. In the movie, he does the same thing for a grown man.
Vogel chooses to spend more and more time with Rogers, who gently, persistently, prods to learn the source of the writer’s anger and pain. As a new father of an infant struggling in his role, Vogel does not want history to repeat itself. Slowly, he allows Mr. Rogers into that tender space in his wounded heart. Mr. Rogers often said that when feelings are mentionable, they become manageable. As Vogel opens up, Rogers shows him a path forward to greater emotional peace.
In one conversation, Vogel challenges Rogers, saying, “You love broken people like me.”
“I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers answers. He tells Vogel that where other people may see him as being unyielding and tough, he sees a man of conviction. And, he adds, without the pain of Vogel’s past, including his father’s wrongs, he would not have become the man of principle he became.
He turns what others see as a deficiency into a strength.
Fred Rogers never saw himself as a hero. His greatness stemmed from his humility, and he confides in Vogel that he, too, carries his own burdens from the past and must fight his nature. Becoming patient, accepting, and controlling anger were not miracle gifts. They were the work of consistent faith and self-actualization.
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a moving and memorable film about trying to repair broken relationships, managing overwhelming feelings, and learning to see with eyes that seek the good. At the end of the movie, the audience applauded. No one got up to leave until after the final credits had rolled. More than twenty years after that Esquire cover story and sixteen years after he passed away, Mr. Rogers continues to inspire with his focus on peace, not division; on kindness, not mocking cruelty.
Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, his animating values are core Jewish values. He had an ayin tov, a good eye that looked for the good in others. He knew that anger “took us out of this world,” as it says in Pirkei Avot, and for that reason needed to be controlled. He knew that daily acts of kindness, of chesed, were the responsibility of every person, to help make the world a better place.
There are three secrets to happiness: Be kind. Be kind. And be kind.”
In an interview with CBS News about his role as Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks dismissed the frequently floated idea that his personal reputation as an unfailingly nice guy made this an easy role for him to play. In fact, he said, as soon as he agreed to take the part, he began to have night sweats. “Everyone has an idea of what Fred was like. It was terrifying. You want to land in a place that people recognize is true human behavior.”
Joanne Rogers, Mr. Rogers’ widow, loaned Hanks some of her husband’s ties to help him feel he was in the role, and each day, the cast was presented with a “Fred quote.” Hanks said that his favorite was this:
“There are three secrets to happiness: Be kind. Be kind. And be kind.” Hanks noted, “It sounds namby-pamby, but it means that you give everybody a fair shake. It means being open to a possibility of making a simple choice of making the world a little bit better.”