In her film about children’s TV star the Rev. Fred (“Mister”) Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, gifted director Marielle Heller chooses to focus not on the children for whom Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was made, but on a grown-up, journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a man who carries the scars of an unhappy childhood into his adult life.
Lloyd Vogel, a character loosely based on acclaimed journalist Tom Junod, is writing, as Junod did in 1998, a profile of Rogers for Esquire magazine. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood translates the ministry of Rogers from children’s TV into the adult world of violence and dysfunction. In the film, Vogel is in crisis, estranged from his father (Chris Cooper) since his dad left the family when he was a young boy. Consumed by anger, he has a physical altercation with his father at his sister’s wedding. The fight leaves Vogel’s face scarred and his spirit wounded. When Vogel’s editor sends him to interview Rogers (Tom Hanks), he goes reluctantly but, to his surprise, encounters a genuine and kind human being.
As their relationship grows into a friendship, Vogel finds that he is able to forgive his now elderly father, and to reengage life in a new way. Call it ministry, call it evangelism: Rogers’ authentic compassion and empathy touched not only the lives of children but also at least this one adult life in a way that changed Vogel’s perspective on life, relationships and well, everything.
Amongst many moments of transformation that the film depicts, one is particularly moving. Vogel and Rogers are in a busy restaurant at lunchtime. Before they eat, Rogers asks Vogel to take a minute of silence to consider the people who’ve loved him into being. For the next 60 seconds, Vogel and Rogers sit quietly; the camera pans around the restaurant. Everyone in the restaurant is still for what seems an eternity—and, of course, no viewer can resist participating as well. “They will come to you,” Rogers assures him. “Just one minute of silence.”
Just one minute of silence to consider the people who have loved you into being: in an era where many find making time for daily prayer to be difficult, what about giving that a try? Just one minute, to put your daily preoccupations into perspective and remember that our lives are blessed because someone loved us.
At the end of the film Rogers visits the Vogel family in their home. Vogel senior is now bedridden, nearing the end of his life. Rogers’ pastoral presence with the family is a “must see” for anyone preparing for ministry. He is gentle, he listens closely and before he leaves he whispers something in the ear of the dying man. When Lloyd asks Rogers what he whispered, he replies that he asked to prayed for, explaining that those who are dying are closer to God than the rest of us.
During his visit, Rogers encourages the family to speak with each other about death, because death is very human, and as the real Rogers famously said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
Keeping silence to remember those who loved us into being, asking to be prayed for, and talking about our feelings: somehow this film transforms those thoughts and sentiments from the banal to the sublime. Throughout the film, Tom Hanks strikes just the right tone, never stooping to an impersonation of Rogers but offering instead a loving portrait of a person through whom the grace of God shines.
For in Fred Rogers we don’t just have a nice guy—here is someone whose life has been transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. Because of that transformation, Rogers is able to put into practice the second of the Great Commandments, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If each person who understands themselves as a follower of Jesus could embrace this even a fraction of the way Rogers did, it would indeed be a beautiful day in our neighbourhoods.