A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: What Would Fred Rogers Do?

Many of you reading this grew up with Fred Rogers as a presence in your home. That wasn’t the way it was for me; Mr. Rogers always struck me as creepy, as the guy at the end of the block who gives out Werther’s Originals on Halloween and who always wants to hire young boys in the neighborhood to do errands for him. Something about that tidy haircut, the red sweater, changing his shoes when he came into the house… all of it set off alarm bells for me. 

But what really set off the alarm bells was his emotional openness. Raised by a single mother who didn’t have the capacity to express love or acceptance, I found Fred Rogers’ default state to be mind blowingly threatening. Grow up in a desert and you’ll have one of two reactions to the ocean – you’ll either fall in love with it because it was what you were always missing or its depths will terrify you.

Decades later I’ve turned a corner of Fred Rogers. It began with the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which recontextualized Rogers; it helped that as a newly sober, newly spiritual person I was open to the messaging. Now comes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a very wonderful movie that continues recontextualizing Rogers for me, and which makes me realize that while I missed out on the beautiful messaging of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kid, it’s never too late to learn these lessons.

A huge part of what makes this film work is that it’s told from the POV of a man who also doesn’t get Fred Rogers. Mr. Roger isn’t the main character in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but rather a figure who comes into focus during the course of the movie, and whose love and kindness has a transformative, thawing effect, like the sun rising gently over a frosty field. 

But it isn’t as treacly as that comparison! Director Marielle Heller made her debut with Diary of a Teenage Girl, a movie that perfectly mixed the sweet and sour (and whose sexual politics I think may be deeply out of favor in 2019… and it was released in 2015!), and she instinctively avoids pitfalls of sentimentality. Part of the way that she does this is to create an opening gimmick that begins the film as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, thus poking light fun at its own themes of love and kindness while also acknowledging that she is trying to get at those themes in a meaningful way, as Mr. Rogers himself did.

By bringing us through the journey of one man coming to understand love and forgiveness, and how those things serve him and his family, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood allows even the most cynical audiences to find a perch. It’s very interesting that our culture has come to a place where any message of love or hope needs to be couched in something darker, lest we think the whole thing is phony or full of shit. Our default state of media consumption is the assumption that anything dark and unpleasant is truthful, while anything bright and kind is nonsense. It’s too bad, and it says a lot about our modern human society, but it does offer the film a way to do some emotional jiu-jitsu and bring in the cynics.

To be fair the story of the journalist (played by Matthew Rhys) is the weakest part of the film. The movie really comes alive when Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers comes on screen, and when it examines the idea that Fred Rogers is just a human being. This, I think, is the most important aspect of the movie, the way that – even as it stays at a remove from Fred Rogers – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is careful to remind us that this is a guy, not an angel.

And I don’t mean it in terms of showing the dark side of Fred Rogers, although he had one. Early in the film the reporter’s wife begs him not to ruin her childhood by doing an expose on Mr. Rogers, and that joke rings true in a world where seemingly every lauded figure is revealed to be problematic (the issue of Esquire in which the article on which this movie is based, the “Heroes” issue, has a cover blurb about Woody Allen). The film isn’t interested in exploring that stuff, although it does touch on it (Mr. Rogers acknowledges that his relationship with his own children hasn’t always been easy, and you get the sense that there’s more story there). 

No, the way the movie reminds us that he’s just a guy is that it shows us that Mr. Rogers needs to work at being Mr. Rogers. He doesn’t just wake up as that guy. He isn’t just this perfectly happy person all the time. He needs to expend effort to be there, to stay there. 

“It must be tough being married to a living saint,” the journalist says to Joan Rogers (Maryanne Plunkett). She doesn’t like that. I’m paraphrasing here (perils of never taking notes in movies), but she says:

“That implies people can’t be like him.”

By distancing Mr. Rogers – by making him a perfect being, born perfect, died perfect – we’re telling ourselves there’s no point in trying to be like Mr. Rogers. One of the great things about the Council of Nicaea’s decision to make Jesus Christ both god and man is that it gives us a path to be Christlike – he’s not a deity whose goodness is ordained from above, he’s a man with all the same problems and bad emotions and shitty habits as the rest of us. 

I think this is the thing that the modern discourse misses about heroes – they shouldn’t be perfect. They should have feet of clay. They should fuck up. Your faves should, in some way or other, be problematic. But what makes them a hero is how they deal with those mistakes and those fuck-ups, how they handle their negative emotions and how they work to become better people. This is what Joan Rogers is saying – her husband doesn’t want to be an untouchable being, he wants to be an example of how all of us can be. 

And I mean all of us. In the film we see that Mr. Rogers really likes the broken people, the problem cases, the ones who are hurting the most and maybe even hurting others. He understands that these are the people he can truly change, and so he fixates on our journalist hero, a guy who shows up to the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with a black eye he got in a fist fight with his elderly father. 

I think it’s because Fred Rogers sees himself in these people. At one point he tells the story of how, as a kid, he was chubby and was bullied and teased for it. He understands that there was a different path he could have taken, that he could have given in to hate and anger, but that for whatever reason – an innate quality, the grace of God, the luck of a certain day being sunny instead of cloudy – he chose a path of love and forgiveness. What makes Mr. Rogers special is that, unlike some other people who chose a higher road, he doesn’t look with disdain on those who chose a lower one. He understands that he could have gone there too, and he has empathy for them. Not sympathy, which indicates distance. 

The film also, I believe, does an exceptional job of exploring the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that we have lost touch with in America – we are the nation with the most prisoners not just because we’re racists, but also because we are a punitive people. We want to see folks punished, and punished harshly and maybe even eternally. We feel that forgiveness is not only weak, it’s letting people off the hook. 

But that isn’t what forgiveness is, and Mr. Rogers walks our lead through a better understanding of what that word really means, without ever sitting down and giving him a speech about it. 

There will be spoilers after this. 

In the film the journalist is endlessly angry at his dad (Chris Cooper), who left the family years ago. But it isn’t just the leaving of the family, it’s that he left his wife on her deathbed and left his son, still a boy, to deal with losing his mother alone. Now, years later, the dad is trying to get back into his son’s life. 

It turns out the dad himself is dying, and he’s trying to tie up his loose ends. The son has no interest in this, but at the same time finds himself unable to be a proper father to his own infant child. It’s not clear to him at first that these are connected, but as the movie goes on he comes to understand that his hate for his father is keeping him from making peace with the death of his mother. It’s easier to hate his dad than to feel the pain, and yet it’s the festering pain that is making him, in turn, a poor father. 

By forgiving his father, the son is able to get to the source of the pain and deal with it, which allows him to get past the obstacles that have kept him from being the man he wants to be. What’s more, he gets to be there for his father as he dies, which establishes him as both a better man than his dad but also not a person who holds that over someone else. It’s really lovely, and it’s complicated, and it’s important to understand that forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook but rather about removing their hook from you – allowing yourself to heal and move on. Forgiveness can be incredibly self-serving, and I mean that in a positive way. 

What I really like about the movie is that Mr. Rogers doesn’t sit the journalist down and tell him this stuff. He lives his life. They have moments of discussion. Mr. Rogers acts like a therapist, inquiring about elements from his past, asking how they make him feel. As with all mental healing these small things shake the foundations of the structures the journalist has built within himself, allowing him to come to these understandings on his own. 

In the end Mr. Rogers’ famous theme song, where he asks us to be his neighbor, isn’t just a call to fill up some vacancies on the block. It’s a call for us to be like him, to come join him on a path of effort that he believes can and will transform the world. The movie shows us this path – he exercises, he engages in creativity, he reads daily Scripture (insert your own version of this here. I read a daily book of Stoic quotes and one verse of the Tao te Ching every day), he prays for people by name (again, insert your own version here. In Buddhist meditation we would call this metta practice), and he has created positive outlets for his own negative emotions and frustrations. 

Growing up I couldn’t understand the meaning of that theme song. I didn’t want to live in that neighborhood, and I didn’t understand that Fred Rogers didn’t want anything from me. I wish I had learned these lessons back then; that, like Fred Rogers, I had chosen a different path when I was a confused and angry kid. But I’m glad that the invitation he was putting out in that theme song still stands. 

It’s an invitation to be like Fred Rogers, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful exploration of how to do just that.