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‘A Beau­tiful Day in the Neigh­borhood’ was released Nov. 22. Courtesy | Wiki­commons

You would be hard-pressed to find a facet of life today that is not, in some way, affected by our con­stant access to the digital world and social media. In large part, this has led to a trib­al­istic approach not just to pol­itics and religion but even to things as sub­jective as tastes in movies. We seem to have lost the key to under­standing those around us. 

“A Beau­tiful Day in the Neigh­borhood” seeks an antidote to these rifts — to help us find a way of learning how to empathize with and under­stand one another through lis­tening and patience.

Mass obsession with children’s tele­vision host Fred Rogers (better known every­where as “Mister Rogers”) has swept through the nation in the last couple of years, espe­cially with the release of the 2018 doc­u­mentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The latest movie to enter into this cul­tural re-dis­covery of Rogers is Marielle Heller’s “A Beau­tiful Day in the Neigh­borhood,” starring Tom Hanks as the beloved man himself.

The film follows Esquire mag­azine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) — a stand-in for real-life jour­nalist Tom Junod — as he is assigned to interview and write about Rogers. Vogel, however, is not par­ticular excited. After all, he is known to write scathing and invasive pro­files on his sub­jects, and Rogers is dis­couraged from speaking with Vogel.

But he does, and Vogel is grad­ually and pro­foundly affected by wit­nessing the gen­erosity, patience, and uncon­di­tional love of Rogers. Hanks’ per­for­mance is bril­liant in depicting these char­ac­ter­istics of Rogers, down to his most mem­o­rable man­nerisms and slow speech.

The story does well to focus its attention not pri­marily on Rogers’ own life but on the influence he has in helping Vogel let go of past hurts and wrongs done by his father. In this way, we can put our­selves in Vogel’s place, con­sid­ering how we might emulate Rogers way of inter­acting with others.

The film achieves this not only by showing Rogers’ kindness but also by being honest that he was, like all of us, a person prone to anger and impa­tience. Vogel wonders how dif­ficult it must be for Rogers’ wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), to live with a saint. She pushes against this notion.

“If you think of him as a saint, his way of being is unat­tainable,” she says.

Indeed, one of the best aspects of “A Beau­tiful Day in the Neigh­borhood” is that it shows how Rogers needed to work every day at his approach to life. He swims daily, listens quietly to others, reads the Bible, and prays each night for people by name. This might seem unat­tainable to the modern viewer, but the whole point of the film is that it isn’t. 

So even Rogers had to cope with strong feelings, such as anger, in healthy ways: “You can play all the lowest keys on a piano at the same time,” he says to Vogel.

Rogers’ message that we can and should cope with anger is espe­cially rel­evant today, as it seems we’re always mad at someone about some­thing. 

In one of his songs, Rogers sings, “What do you do with the mad that you feel,/When you feel so mad you could bite?/…What do you do? Do you punch a bag?/Do you pound some clay or some dough?” Whether we’re six or 96, we all must con­tin­ually learn how to properly deal with incli­na­tions to hurt our­selves or others.

What this movie accom­plishes, then, is to help us take the things we learned from Rogers as children and apply them to the dark and divisive issues of adult life. 

The film also teaches us that this world would be a lot better off if we decided to listen to others before we speak. 

And, more than lis­tening, to truly love others. Vogel notes that Rogers loves “broken people” like himself, to which Rogers responds, “I don’t think you are broken.” He starts from a belief that people are not beyond the need for love.

Maybe our daily dis­course, even political dis­course, would improve if we, like Mister Rogers, realize that the people we encounter are their own indi­viduals with their own expe­ri­ences — and that they deserve lis­tening and love as much as we do.