A beautiful film speaks volumes to a broken culture
By Jim Killam
About halfway through A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Lloyd Vogel is interviewing Fred Rogers in a restaurant booth. It’s another in a series of conversations where, really, Mister Rogers has been interviewing Lloyd, uncovering deep pain from a torn relationship with his father.
“You love people like me,” Lloyd concedes.
“What are people like you?” Fred asks.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod’s encounters with Mister Rogers for a 1998 Esquire magazine issue about heroes. The premise is cliché, but in this case true: a cynical journalist assigned to interview “the nicest man in the world.” And a throwaway, 400-word “fluff” assignment becomes a friendship that changes a man forever.
Junod wrote a wonderful essay for The Atlantic to coincide with the film’s opening. Lloyd Vogel’s storyline is fiction, which is why Junod asked that his and his relatives’ real names not be used. But his deep interactions with Fred Rogers were real and, he writes, reflected accurately:
“A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him.”
That thought forms the movie’s story line, which is wonderfully framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Getting there takes a few minutes, though. Tom Hanks’ singing entry made me laugh aloud. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mister Rogers might have been best known for the parodies by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. This seemed like another of those, for about 30 seconds. Then I forgot I was watching Hanks and was absorbed into a story that centers on the kindness of a man who seemed too good to be true.
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IT’S HARD TO WATCH this film and not think about the gospels’ stories of broken people encountering Jesus. How he quickly moved past cultural differences and people’s own defenses. How he made the person to whom he was speaking feel like the most important person in the world. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did,” the woman at the well told her friends.