A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Is All About Nice

by SC Contributing Writer Shelby Larsen

Yes, of course you should see this movie. After all, it’s about Mr. Rogers. And on top of that, it has Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers is nice.
Tom Hanks is nice.
Why wouldn’t you go?
If you go, you too will be nice.
For a while.

Niceness is in short supply right now. And, truthfully, this movie is not only all about nice, it is nice. Mr. Rogers was a hero to generations of our nation’s children. Mr. Rogers taught that even when we grow up, it is still possible to be nice. Unfortunately, we forget that lesson, somewhere in middle school and high school, when emotions run strongly. It’s then, that what Mr. Rogers taught us, that though being human means having emotions, they can be managed. It is one of the tragedies of our time that so many people forget that. They forget to do what Mr. Rogers did best: listen. Listen, without condescension, to children. Listen to their worries, their fears, their pleasures. Listening to them leads to liking them, in his memorable words, “just the way you are.”
There is not a lot of listening, not a lot of liking “just the way you are” going on these days, evn in the movies. Maybe especially in the movies.

The movie isn’t really about Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers, in and of himself, is not inherently dramatic. This film is about the effect that Mr. Rogers had on the people whose lives he touched, which, due to the ubiquity of television, was pretty much the whole country.

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood made its national debut on February 19, 1968. The country was fraught with controversy over the Vietnam War, the “flower power” youth revolution, and, in general, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s perhaps too simple to see the show as a comforting, culture -countering response to the fractures that roiled the nation’s adults. Just so, it is easy to see character of Lloyd Vogel, a cynical, alienated from his family, emotionally conflicted journalist who sees himself as a righteous purveyor of truth, as a stand in for current culture.

But perhaps that is taking a metaphor a little too far. This is, after all, a movie, and a movie needs some plot, some drama. Lloyd’s initially dismissive attitude towards the assignment—interview the iconic children’s host for an article about heroes in Esquire magazine—becomes, as he interacts more with Fred Rogers, a spiritual journey. Spiritual journeys are notoriously hard to film, and so, the Vogel family dysfunction become the somewhat shaky (we’ve seen it all before) storyline to illustrate the values embodied by Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, Rev. Rogers –yes, he was an ordained minister in the mainline Presbyterian denomination—his spiritual journey is unknowable. He didn’t talk about himself much. He simply was who he was.

The film touches on Mr. Rogers faith, by showing him at prayer, a mention or two of God, and a reference to his reading of Scripture. I wish it had done a little more with his faith.
(Full disclosure. I too am an ordained mainline Presbyterian minister, and I always wish that films would show a little more of behavior deeply rooted in faith). Nevertheless, his faith, and his spiritual journey, whatever it was, made him who and what he was.

Today, we would probably label him as highly empathetic; he looked at people, saw them, and responded directly to them. He deflected questions about himself, his methods, his creativity, his life, by asking about the lives of others. If you want to get a feeling for him personally, go to other sources. The 1998 Esquire article that served as inspiration for the film, Can You Say . . .Hero? recounts journalist Tom Junod’s interactions with Mr. Rogers. The 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, directed by Morgan Neville, focuses far more on Fred Rogers himself.

This movie is about values; of seeing others, of listening to others, of appreciating others. Of being present for others. That’s the message Mr. Rogers not only spoke but lived. Really. He wasn’t a saint, though we are never shown his failings. We don’t really care, because, for a little while, kindness and niceness are appreciated.

So, this movie is about a thoroughly decent and nice man.
This movie has nice Tom Hanks doing a very good job of portraying this nice man.
Why wouldn’t you go see the movie?
Maybe it will make you think about being nice.
For more than a little while.

The world could use more niceness.

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