A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the long-awaited Mr. Rogers movie. As it started, I waited in anticipation, a smile across my face at the thought of a couple hours of Mr. Rogers.
The movie is less about Mr. Rogers than the investigative journalist who was assigned to write a profile piece on him. It is an interesting angle into the life and psyche of Fred Rogers. But the focus is more on Lloyd Vogel (the character based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod) and his life issues that a friendship with Mr. Rogers helps him with.
Lloyd does not want to be writing a piece about Mr. Rogers. But out he goes to Pittsburg to interview Fred Rogers on the set of his television show. He gets little time with the childhood hero and isn’t convinced that Mr. Rogers isn’t a phony or a fake. He is too nice.
The movie emphasizes Fred Rogers’s deep caring of other people. He focused on one individual at a time, giving the person his entire attention, in ways that could make people uncomfortable. He apparently had “projects”, people that he liked to help heal. Lloyd was one of those.
The movie shows him helping Lloyd heal from family issues—a father who abandoned him and his dying mother when Lloyd was young. Gradually the anger and bitterness that infested Lloyd for his entire life ebbs away. He reconciles with his father before his father dies. His marriage is strengthened. He desires to be a better father to his own child.
Tom Hanks does a wonderful job playing Fred Rogers. The only thing, the thing that initially bothered Lloyd about Mr. Rogers, bothered me about this movie. Fred Rogers feels fake. He feels two-dimensional. Reference is made to the anger and temper that Fred battles, and the difficulty his children must have gone through being his offspring is discussed. But I still couldn’t get over the feeling that Fred Rogers wasn’t quite real.
Perhaps a two-hour movie isn’t long enough. Perhaps I needed multiple meetings and a years-long friendship with Mr. Rogers to see his humanity.
Children of the sixties and seventies will not be disappointed though. I felt transported to my younger self, which reminded me of how the crew of NPR Politics described how they felt when Sesame Street showed up at NPR. (Scott Detrow regressed to his childlike self upon seeing Ernie. Well, who wouldn’t?)
The movie weaves in the streetscape used in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with reality. We are given ample time on his television set and see Daniel Striped Tiger several times. (I had to track down where Daniel Striped Tiger currently resides: The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum.) Daniel is Fred’s alter ego. He lets Fred express things that he perhaps couldn’t on his own.
In one slightly surreal experience, we see Fred behind the scenes being Daniel in a skit for the TV show. On one side of the stage set is Daniel. On the other side is Fred cramped in a small space providing the voice for Daniel as the tiger speaks. Of course, as adults (or as former puppeteers) we know this is how puppetry works. But seeing the magic going on in front the curtain and the manipulation behind the curtain at the same time is a strange mixture of child and adult realities colliding.
Oh, and the real Mrs. Rogers appears, albeit briefly, in the film. In one scene, the camera pans around a restaurant, taking in the other patrons enjoying lunch. And there she is. For a split second. In a movie about her late husband. Perhaps there are other Easter eggs in the movie that I missed.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful tribute to a childhood icon. And it’s a good reminder of all that Mr. Rogers taught us. Acceptance of yourself and others is key. Focus on your feelings and identify positive ways to deal with them. Ground yourself in the present moment. Like Detrow with Ernie, I regressed.