I didn’t give Mr. Rogers the time of day when I was a kid. We didn’t have a TV when I was age appropriate for his show, and when we got a TV, in my early adolescence, I watched Mr. Ed or Leave it to Beaver, not slow, dull Mr. Rogers and his silly puppets. I was much more interested in laughing than in getting in touch with my feelings. However, a hiatus of nearly fifty years can change one’s perspective, and I was quite prepared to be interested when I went out to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Thanks to a tip from a colleague, I had read Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article, “Can You Say…Hero?” — a great example of profile writing — which inspired the movie’s storyline about a cynical and worldly wise writer assigned by his editor to profile Mr. Rogers. Junod’s character becomes Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in the film, and his family situation is somewhat different than Junod’s, but perfectly set up for an intriguing back and forth with Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). I had also read Junod’s recent article for The Atlantic, “My Friend Mister Rogers,” which gives his current reflections on his relationship with the man and background information on the film.
Structured Like an Episode
The movie is structured like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which sounds like it could be corny, but it’s really carried off quite effectively. After the obligatory overhead shots of the neighborhood, Mr. Rogers comes in singing the title song, changes to his sweater and tennies, and introduces a picture of his “friend” Lloyd Vogel (they haven’t met yet), the journalist who is going to interview him. Lloyd has one plot in mind — to write a little profile of Mr. Rogers and to see if he’s really as good a person as his reputation. Mr. Rogers has another plot up his cardiganed sleeve — to get to know Lloyd and, after that, to try to help him move his life in a positive direction. The TV episode’s theme is related to forgiveness, which goes right along with Lloyd’s need to forgive his father for sleeping around and abandoning the family while Mrs. Vogel was dying in the hospital. Meanwhile, in the current time of the story, Lloyd’s father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), attempts to seek peace and forgiveness with Lloyd. The film manages to keep these interrelated balls in the air and bring them to appropriate resolution within the context of a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode. It’s quite an artistic feat, a really interesting screenplay.
Models of Manhood
Lloyd and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) have a baby boy, and Lloyd is at a crossroads in his identity as a man and father. He abhors the irresponsible image of his father from the past, and when he sees his father at his sister’s wedding, there is nothing to change his opinion. Jerry calls Lloyd’s wife “doll” when he meets her, still drinks too much, doesn’t remember the name of the man who is marrying his daughter, and tries to charm his way out of serious situations where bridges have been burned. Lloyd refers to his father as “Jerry,” rather than “father” or “dad,” denying the intimate relation they have.
Mr. Rogers presents quite an alternative male role model, kind, patient, a great listener, speaking slowly, very compassionate, a nurturer. He is gentle, never raises his voice or gets excited, but is always interested in others. After a couple of encounters, Lloyd says “he’s way more complicated than I thought.” Mr. Rogers talks openly about feelings: his, yours. He makes Lloyd quite uncomfortable with his gently probing interest. One of the engaging puzzles of the screenplay is how Lloyd can become closer to his father — so unlike Mr. Rogers — by adopting some of Mr. Rogers’ characteristics, such as recognizing that he can make choices about how he responds to his feelings about his father.
What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?
In the clever parallels that connect the episode of Neighborhood that is being filmed with Lloyd’s real life, none is more powerful than the question of how do we respond to our negative feelings, in this case anger and unforgiveness. One of Mr. Rogers’ classic songs is “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” The title alone alludes to a choice we can make about how to respond to our feelings. At the beginning of the movie, Lloyd can only respond to his intense anger by throwing punches. He knows this is destructive, but he can’t imagine how else to respond. Through a series of well-calibrated interactions, Mr. Rogers draws him out and brings him along, step by step. At one point, Lady Aberlin (Maddie Corman), in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, is talking with Daniel Tiger, who complains that Mr. Skunk has sprayed all around and over him and he hates the smell. This cues Lady Aberlin to sing “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” while Lloyd takes in the cues and has the opportunity to apply the lessons to his own relationship with his father, who “sprayed” a dark cloud over Lloyd’s existence. In that sense, this is a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode written with adults as the target audience, and in fact I didn’t see a single child at either of the two showings I attended. It was mostly people of my age and older. For them it may have been a nostalgia trip, but for me, as a teacher, it was highly interesting to see how Mr. Rogers operated as a teacher, in the episode and in real life. Not at all like a celebrity teacher. More as a Socratic listener who brought things out of his pupils.
Abundant Strong Women
Although you could say that the central drama is between three men, this is a film without a single female stereotype. Wow! How unusual and refreshing. Susan Kelechi Watson does a great job portraying Andrea as caring and patient with her husband, but also ready to hold him accountable when he is acting immaturely or harmfully. She is also a professional who is temporarily putting her career on hold to care for their baby. Christine Lahti as Ellen, Lloyd’s editor, is strong and confident and puts Lloyd in his place when needed, but is also compassionate and has Lloyd’s best interests at heart. In brief vignettes, Joanne Rogers (Fred’s wife, played by Maryann Plunkett), Lloyd’s sister Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard), his mother (Jessica Hecht), Dorothy (Jerry’s girlfriend), not to mention the female director and first Assistant Director of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood all provide portraits of strong, mature, and good (but not Hallmark-y) women. In this movie there were a bunch of women who had it together and helped two men who needed major changes in their lives to get it together — with the help of Mr. Rogers, who modeled a non-traditional version of manhood. When I saw in the closing credits that Marielle Heller directed the film, I understood one reason why this film could upend so many usual gender stereotypes. Only eight percent of the top 250 Hollywood films in 2018 were directed by women, according to Hollywoodreporter.com
It also seemed like there was a conscious attempt to cast people of color in what could have been a fairly white film. Andrea, Lloyd’s wife, is black. And in the segments which depict magazine production at Esquire, many of the staff are persons of color. There are also lots of people of color on the subway when kids sing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (true to fact, according to Junod’s 1998 article), and when Mr. Rogers visits a string quartet in New York, the players are either all or mostly black, and all women. The film also shows a clip of Mr. Rogers visiting the Arsenio Hall show. I go through this list to point out that at many discretionary points, the film includes persons of color, perhaps to reflect reality, perhaps to make the film less white. This choice also reflects Mr. Rogers’ own choices to integrate his show with black actors playing characters in positions of authority, Officer Clemmons (a policeman) and Mayor Maggie.
The last scene makes Mr. Rogers seem kind of God-like. The episode is done, Lloyd’s family issues are resolved, the studio lights have been turned off, the cast and crew have departed for home. It’s just Mr. Rogers, alone at the piano. He plays a slow, even melancholy number, pauses to bang a few low notes, which he had earlier described as a way that he processes stress and negative emotions. Lloyd had asked him how he could carry other people’s burdens, so many people who ask him for prayers and confess their heartaches to him. He mentioned banging those low notes back then, and here director Heller gives the payoff.
How does God carry all our burdens? We don’t know. God is just God. As for Mr. Rogers, we see a bit inside the movie about what gives him the strength to carry out his ministry. His wife tells Lloyd he gets up early and studies his Bible every morning, prays — a brief shot shows him praying for every member of Lloyd’s family — swims, plays piano. Still, it can be tough to carry all that emotional burden. Mrs. Rogers affirms that her husband is not a saint, but someone who works at being and doing good.
Well-crafted, redemptive movies that portray spiritually-inclined characters in a positive light are not that common. I thought A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was well worth seeing just as an artistic film with good casting and acting and an interesting screenplay, but it’s also worth seeing as a story of growth and transformation through the power of loving and wise intercession. You’re likely to leave the theater with an enlarged appreciation for Fred Rogers and a strong desire to have a more positive impact in your circle of influence.
Scott Moncrieff is a Professor of English at Andrews University. For many years he taught a class called Understanding Movies.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures / ABeautifulDay.movie
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