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.