Amidst all the holiday craziness this weekend, Jaclyn and I managed to sneak away from Miles today to see a couple of movies. One of those movies was the Fred Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
“Biopic” isn’t quite the right term for the movie. It’s not really about Fred Rogers’s life. There are no flashbacks to his youth or young adulthood. We don’t see the genesis of his celebrated television series. We only ever see glimpses of his home life through the eyes of the movie’s actual protagonist, a hard-luck journalist named Lloyd Vogel who has been tasked with writing a small blurb about Rogers for a piece on American heroes. This movie is less concerned with exactly who Rogers was than what he stood for — his beliefs and values.
It’s perhaps because of the movie’s cautious approach to Rogers’s life that it’s so easy to be emotionally moved by the movie on a deeply personal level. Instead of asking us to sympathize with or understand Mr. Rogers himself, we’re left engaging with the man’s philosophy on our own personal terms. Just as he did with his television show, Mr. Rogers never makes things about himself (when Lloyd tries to do so, Fred tends to redirect back to Lloyd) The focus is always on the person in front of him at that moment. And, for about 110 minutes, that person is you, the viewer.
What Mr. Rogers asks of us isn’t even indirect — there’s actually a point in the movie where he makes eye contact with the audience in a moment that would never have worked if Tom Hanks wasn’t capable of channeling Fred Rogers’s persona so perfectly and we weren’t able to believe in him. The moment lingers, as though Rogers refuses to let the narrative continue until you are actively reflecting on your own life and the people who matter most to you. I honestly can’t remember seeing anything like it in a movie before. Like I said, it should not work at all, but it remarkably does.
Even when it’s not directly addressing us, the movie is asking us to remember lessons Mr. Rogers likely imparted on us in our youth that we may have forgotten amidst the years and cynicism. It certainly brought back memories for me of time spent with the man in my youth that gradually became dismissed as hokey or childish as I matured. Coming back to this again not only as an adult, but as a father, invited a renewed appreciation for Rogers’s optimistic worldview. It absolutely made me reflect on the traits I want to embody in my life and engender in my own son.
Although Mr. Rogers himself is gone, I’m thankful that we can still find his show on services like Amazon Prime. It would be a shame for any generation to have to go without his guidance.