Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


I’m not the first one to say it, but if Jesus came back today we would nail the bastard up again. (Jesus is a probably fictional character in Christian mythology, written about in manuscripts by four men who almost certainly never met him.) The cross would be constructed by Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Mike Pence, and the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Jr. Our Goon-in-Chief would congratulate them on a “tremendous, beautiful job,” and then drive in the nails himself, all the while tweeting that Christ was “the most highly over-rated savior in history.” Remember, in the stories Jesus was a man of peace who preached love for your fellow man, and forgiveness and other values no Republican would dare endorse today.

But even beyond those assholes, even actual good people just don’t know how to react to a genuinely good man. He must be selling something. Surely he can’t be as kind and gentle as he seems on TV. What’s the catch?

There is no catch. If you are one of those who has seen five minutes of one of his shows and think of him as that weird, corny, child-like, slow-talking, sweater-wearing guy who has an astonishingly low-tech studio and puppets so primitive that their mouths don’t even move … I ask you to try just one or two of his shows. It’s only an hour out of your life.

My youngest son, Stefan, watched a lot of crap on our little 9-inch Sony B&W TV in San Francisco. Why? Because crap was just about all that was available. So he would sit, vacant-eyed, as Japanimation abominations like Speed Racer roared by on the boob tube. Then Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would come on, and he would watch with rapt attention. Fred Rogers spoke to children and adults in exactly the same way, there was nothing phony about his presentation. And he spoke of things that no one else was discussing with children, like anger and death, and divorce, something even more frightening to pre-schoolers than death.

This movie is not exactly about Fred Rogers. At least that’s the line that’s been taken to justify Tom Hanks getting nominated for the Best Supporting Oscar in spite of getting top billing and having just about as much screen time as the so-called star, Matthew Rhys (a Welshman, in case you were interested). Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, an apparently highly fictionalized version of Tom Junod, who wrote an article for Esquire in 1998 titled “Can You Say … Hero?” Vogel, a cynical and angry journalist who specializes in finding warts on admired people, is assigned to go to Pittsburg to write a short puff piece on Rogers. He hates the idea. The interview turns into a series of encounters, and in each Mister Rogers ends up interviewing—almost psychoanalyzing, in a very subtle way—Vogel. Eventually Vogel’s resistance crumbles, and he reconciles with his father, played very well by Chris Cooper.

And you shouldn’t believe any of this plot … not specifically. Vogel is a fictional character. I don’t know if Junod had a relationship with his old man like this. Probably not … and I don’t care. In the end it’s not really about any of that made-up story, but about the incredible love and strength of character of Fred Rogers. And that all rings true. Hanks absolutely nails Mister Rogers. (He deserved a nomination, just not for “supporting.”)

It is beautifully directed by Marielle Heller. She uses the device of expanding the primitive model buildings the show used to depict the Neighborhood before cutting to interiors, but on a much larger scale, to manage scene changes from Pittsburg to New York City, and it is charming, with a tiny Pittsburg with all the bridges and tiny cars and boats. And the most moving scene, to me, actually did happen. Vogel and Mister Rogers are traveling on the NYC subway, and everyone knows who he is. A couple children start to sing the song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (written, as were all the songs used on the show, by Rogers). Pretty soon the whole car is singing along. Everyone knows the words! I could have sung along, too. It is a heart-warming moment in a heart-warming movie.