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.
Fred Rogers was not a saint, as his wife, Joanne, reminds Lloyd in the movie. They resisted that moniker because it would imply a status that others could never attain. So what made him the way he was? Fred’s Christlike traits came certainly from the presence of the Holy Spirit, and also from practice: He read Scripture daily. He prayed for a long list of people, by name. He took time and gave people (especially children) his full attention. The story of Mister Rogers unmistakably whispers the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The film’s reception and overwhelmingly positive reviews also made me wonder: In a culture where Christians are increasingly reviled — sometimes deservedly — and where people guard themselves against any religious message, how are this film and its main character finding their way to those same hardened hearts?
Simple, honest kindness. We long for it. In Fred Rogers, we see a man who deeply loved God, loved people and reflected the character of Jesus. In The Atlantic essay, Junod writes: “He could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.”
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AS WE WALKED THROUGH the Showplace 16 lobby, I noticed the other movies playing there this week. Movies about crime, war, industry, a con artist, an insane clown, slavery, killer cyborgs, death, the supernatural and … ice princesses. Some of these are really good stories. Important stories. Some play to our worst appetites. Some are studio cash grabs.
Mister Rogers doesn’t fit this world. He never really did. He and his show were always a cultural oddity, but an oddity people felt unexplainably attracted to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood moves slowly and quietly. At times, the theater walls couldn’t keep out the racket of a much louder movie playing next door.
Yet, the outside noise didn’t matter. There we all sat, transfixed by a story about a kids’ TV show aimed at 5-year-olds.
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TOWARD THE END, the reality of our broken world busted in again. Four high-school aged kids bounded into the theater with their popcorn, giggling enough to be disruptive while they ran up the stairs toward the back rows. It looked like they had been at another movie and then decided to crash this one. It’s something kids do.
Still giggling, the kids found seats. A guy near the front, sitting with his date, stood and turned toward them.
“Get out. All of you. Get out now.”
The kids froze. Mr. Vigilante froze, and for a few seconds there was this tense, silent standoff. It didn’t help that the kids were black and the guy, who looked to be about 40, was white.
Finally he sat back down. The kids quieted. The pit in my stomach disappeared. On the screen, Mister Rogers continued helping a family come to grips with deep pain, grace and forgiveness.
And I thought: There it is. The tension, the fear, the incivility of our culture, juxtaposed with … Jesus. A glimpse of the upside-down kingdom, where the meek really will inherit the earth and the peacemakers will be called children of God.
The best films stick in our heads for days afterward, making us think deeply about who we are, individually and collectively. I don’t think Fred Rogers would feel very at home today in our broken, unkind culture. But I think he would like knowing that he still speaks to us, softly.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.