What do you do with the mad that you feel?
As adults, we don’t hear Mr. Rogers’ question being directed to us, because he put it in a rhyming song simple enough for the youngest of his viewers, whom he tirelessly coached on understanding and managing their feelings in constructive ways.
This is something children need to learn to do and which adults ought to know how to do. But do we? Do we do it? Do we know how?
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood holds a special place — it would not be too strong to say a sacred place — in the hearts of many. Yet that neighborhood is an infinite distance from where we live now.
The lullaby-like celesta notes at the beginning of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — both the theme song and the movie, which starts with a meticulous recreation of the opening of every show of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — may fill us with nostalgia, but the way we go about our lives and interact with people around us suggests little or no continuity between that nostalgia and our current reality.
If Graham Greene was right that “the only true subject” for any film is “life as it is and life as it ought to be,” Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood offers, at most, a powerful paradigm of life as perhaps we feel it ought to be, or would like it to be. Life as it is, though, seems to us a separate subject — not only separate but separated, partitioned, sealed off.
“Subversive” is not a word that I would expect to use in a positive way in a review of a movie about Mr. Rogers, but here we are: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is wisely and gently subversive in blurring the barrier between the as-it-ought-to-be world of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and the as-it-is world of adult conflict and complications.
It starts with the casting.
Tom Hanks isn’t a dead ringer for Fred Rogers, any more than he was for Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. He doesn’t zip the iconic red knit cardigan or toss the shoe with quite the offhand, fluid grace that Rogers usually did, and the first time he says “Hi, neighbor!” he drops the final “r” a bit in a way Rogers didn’t.
Why does the performance feel right? Hanks commits utterly to Rogers’ sincerity, soft-spokenness and gentleness of spirit — but it’s not only his acting choices. It’s also who he is.
Another actor might look more like Rogers or nail the technical details more precisely, but no one else in Hollywood has the store of goodwill and trust to connect emotionally with viewers as Rogers. I believe in Mr. Rogers as I believe in few human beings, but, while he isn’t on that rarefied level, I believe in Tom Hanks, too. And so do most of you.
From the outset, though, Beautiful Day signals that it isn’t merely out to recreate a beloved television show or its even more beloved host.
Hanks’ Rogers begins by opening little doors on a poster board, revealing familiar faces from the TV show. Behind one door is an unfamiliar, startling image that clearly isn’t from any episode of the show — and, although he continues talking in the same simple way he always did, it’s clear our host isn’t addressing a hypothetical young viewer in the past, but you and me in the present.
What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite?
More inspired by than based on a celebrated 1998 profile of Mr. Rogers in Esquire magazine, Beautiful Day isn’t so much a portrait of Mr. Rogers as a sketch of his impact on the life of an investigative journalist whose unwanted assignment of 400 words on the most uncomplicated public figure in American life unexpectedly spirals into something much more complicated.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) isn’t Tom Junod, the real-life Esquire journalist who met Rogers in 1998 as an interview subject and found an enduring friend. (Junod appeared in last year’s lovely documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?)
In particular, Lloyd’s furious non-relationship with his boozy, philandering deadbeat dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), is fiction (though Junod has said his father actually was as dissolute as his onscreen counterpart, among other points of contact).
There’s nothing remarkable either about Jerry’s abysmal failure as a father or Lloyd’s implacable bitterness toward him. In a way, that’s the point: If we don’t have a relationship like that in our lives, we’re close to someone who does.
Beautiful Day is about what we can change and what we can’t change. Lloyd can’t change the fact that his sister invited their father to her latest wedding, nor that Jerry shows up drunk. What he could have changed was how he dealt with all this, both emotionally and physically — and, after all, it wasn’t his wedding.
Lloyd and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) have a new son, and Lloyd has had no male role model in his life to teach him how to be a father, or even a husband.
How will Fred McFeely Rogers figure into this? I won’t relate the circumstances that lead to Lloyd trying to talk to Mr. Rogers on the phone from a fire escape, as far as he can get at the moment from his family in their apartment and his father in a car in the alley below him, but it’s in that conversation that Mr. Rogers asks him a revealing question.
“Do you know what the most important thing in the world to me right now is?” The answer: “Talking to Lloyd Vogel.”
Simone Weil’s dictum “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” is embodied in Mr. Rogers, the rarest and purest of men. Has Lloyd ever been that generous with anyone? Has anyone ever been that generous with him?
Jerry hasn’t reformed, although he has changed. As he puts it, he has finally “grown the hell up” — to an extent, at least, and too late to benefit the woman he married or the children he had with her.
This also is an all too familiar story. Why does it happen? Is it a cycle of failure? Was no one there for Jerry when he was a boy?
“At the root of all learning and relationships,” Mr. Rogers once said, is “love — or the lack of it.” There is so much lack in the world. Humanity is like a gaping wound of lack of love.
Mr. Rogers loved us all as much as he could. It wasn’t remotely enough. He was a lonely prophet in the wilderness, long since shouted down by competing voices.
Rage and hopelessness are increasingly ubiquitous cultural realities. Divisiveness and polarization spread and metastasize — in the political sphere, but also in popular culture, in our churches, in our homes and families. (The holiday season has always been stressful, but increasingly family get-togethers are like parties in a minefield, events to be survived as much as savored.)
Beautiful Day is about forgiveness and the seemingly unforgivable. I’m not sure that’s a point of contact with director Marielle Heller’s last biopic, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring a caustic Melissa McCarthy as the unprincipled literary forger Lee Israel; if so, it’s almost the only one.
Forgiveness has become almost an old-fashioned word, a relic of an ethos we as a culture no longer quite believe in. We find it increasingly hard not only to like or tolerate one another across cultural or moral fault lines, but even to imagine or accept the idea of liking or tolerating one another.
There are exceptions: an African American befriending Klansmen and leading them gently out of racist hatred; an Orthodox Jew inviting the scion of a white-supremacist family to weekly Shabbat meals and turning him from his ugly heritage.
Yet these exceptional examples, while they inspire, also cause discomfort. Warfare is simpler without fraternizing with the enemy.
Lloyd’s path forward is clearer because Jerry shows signs of penitence and reform. What would it mean to love him if he were unrepentant, or (what is almost worse) made noises in the direction of repentance but continued in the same abusive patterns of behavior?
Beautiful Day doesn’t have all the answers. Mr. Rogers didn’t have all the answers. I called him a prophet in the wilderness. Like many prophets, he was an odd duck, and Beautiful Day attests his eccentricity as well as his virtue. It also attests, very subtly, the effort and the cost of his constant generosity to everyone. (There’s an oblique but startling moment at the end that, without in any way detracting from his virtue, hints at the darkness of Mr. Rogers.)
But, like a prophet, he was in touch with something larger than himself, and that something occasionally comes into focus in Beautiful Day, particularly in a rare sequence of sustained cinematic silence and in a moment in which we see Mr. Rogers praying for various people by name, as he did every day — a list that here includes Lloyd, his wife, their son … and Jerry.
It doesn’t come to a climax, as the real Tom Junod’s Esquire profile did, with Mr. Rogers leading Junod to pray himself, as he never had before. The term “grace,” so notable in Junod’s account of Rogers, is absent here. The film’s Mr. Rogers is clearly religious, but his faith doesn’t make as much of an impression here as it did on Junod.
Yet I came from the film not just inspired but challenged once again by the simple goodness of Mr. Rogers: thinking about what I can do to be a better neighbor to those around me — and certainly to refrain from acting on my less generous impulses. (I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time.)
None of us by ourselves can guarantee a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Perhaps we can at least aspire to be prophets in the wilderness.
For a few formative years of our lives, Mr. Rogers showed us the way. Why don’t we walk that way? Because of all the voices dominating the discussion ever since.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.