Movie review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

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.

Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.