There are at least a couple of Mr Rogers films out there.
There’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a 2018 documentary. And there’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the 2019 film based on an Esquire magazine interview by Tom Junod from 1998, that I’ve just watched three consecutive nights in a row.
Am I cheating if I get you to read the interview? Maybe yes. I only read the interview after my first time through the film. As you watch the film it is far from a foregone conclusion that the interview would ever happen.
Don’t read it if the article is a spoiler, although if you know Mr Rogers you likely won’t be surprised.
The movie is largely fictionalized. Real-life writer Tom Junod becomes Lloyd Vogel portrayed by Matthew Rhys in a terrific script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster. Lloyd’s incisive approach tends to upset his subjects, so much so that his editor is having trouble finding subjects willing to be interviewed.
Or so she says.
And then she decides to do something completely different. In an issue with the theme “heroes”, she wants Vogel to interview Mr Rogers.
Him: “you mean the host of the hokey children’s show?”
Her: ”Yes the beloved host of the children’s show”.
When his wife hears of the assignment –totally unlike his usual—she shudders, saying “Oh god Lloyd: don’t ruin my childhood,” knowing that he always tries to get to the bottom of any subject he undertakes.
This one will be different, it must be different.
But while we’re watching Lloyd’s struggles, an unhappy angry person, we seem to be watching an episode of the show. At the beginning Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers starts the show with the usual song, the usual change of clothes, the usual welcome gestures. And we’re told in short order about Lloyd, shown a picture of him with an injury from a fight. We’ll segue from the show’s set and its charming little models of houses and cars, to an urban setting with jets and trains, also shown using the same models.
I have a weakness for films that do this kind of model-play, as you may have observed when I admitted my love for Terry Gilliam (for instance Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Wes Anderson (any of his films), Tim Burton (for instance Beetlejuice or Nightmare before Christmas) or the computerized magic in Scorsese’s Hugo, especially when they conflate adult stories with the worlds & viewpoints of children.
I must add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to that list, for its models, for its mix of the discourses of adults & children, for its depths.
I had to look up the director’s name. Marielle Heller..(?)
She’s young, I don’t know her work, but I’ll be watching for her next film.
Ah yes she enlarges the list of snubbed women at the last Academy Awards, alongside (for example) Greta Gerwig. This is an easy film to under-estimate, its style deceptively simple, not unlike its subject.
The film is a bit like a parable. As Lloyd tries to interview Fred Rogers, he is perplexed as it is Fred Rogers who asks him the probing questions, but without any axe to grind, just concern & empathy. We watch Lloyd watching Fred, as he rides the subway & is serenaded by kids singing his show’s song to him, as he patiently & unconditionally deals with a difficult guest on the show, as he struggles with a tent, and then opts to let the show keep his display of ineptitude, a better lesson than something polished & inauthentic.
I find the film very uplifting in a troubling time. It can show you new ways to approach prayer, or if you prefer, how to meditate, how to handle your own anger. This is a film about love & forgiveness.
And it’s startlingly genuine. You will believe in it, I think. Once I saw it, I had to find Tom Junod’s interview (the one above), which closes a circle.
And I need to add another piece, also by Tom Junod, written in December 2019, after the film appeared. Like the film, it challenges me, provokes me to think about my relationship to myself, because Junod, Rogers, and Hanks all appear to have a kind of discipline, a way of working at being good. Goodness is not something you are, but something that takes work, something you make and re-make over and over.
I find that reassuring.