An Island in the Storm
Last evening Linda and I watched the Tom Hanks movie about Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It came out a year after the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? We saw that one in a actual movie theater. Remember those?
Both looks at the life and work of the beloved and celebrated Fred Rogers are heartwarming. But they are also different. The earlier one is a documentary, the footage all the real Mr. Rogers. The latter is a fictional film inspired by the 1998 Esquire Magazine article, “Can You Say . . . Hero?” by Tom Junod.
In the midst, as we now, are of multiple overwhelmings — pandemic, protest, the Trump presidency, polarization — any time spent with Mister Rogers is healing in ways that we, at least, needed. Mister Rogers is the anti-thesis of all things Trump and Trumpian, the vanity, the pettiness, the gratuitous acrimony. He is attentive, kind, and available. Especially to children and thus to the child, whether wounded or joyful, within each one of us.
Still, I’d thought making a movie about Mister Rogers would be a challenge. Where’s the tension? So much sweetness and light. So always soft-spoken and unfailingly kind.
In the documentary version a bit of tension was found in revealing just how fiercely passionate Mister Rogers was about his mission — to make television into something decent and loving for children. In the face of a good deal of ugliness on television, Rogers was relentless, and a bit of a perfectionist, in this quest.
In the movie with Tom Hanks, the tension comes from a different source — the writer who is working on the Esquire story and from his own wounded heart. In the movie, he is in Mister Rogers words, “my friend Lloyd.” He is introduced at the very beginning, but it’s jarring. Alongside other faces in a cut-out, Lloyd’s face, scarred from a recent fight with his estranged father, looks more like the old “Wanted” posters in the Post Office than someone in The Land of Make Believe.
Lloyd (played by Matthew Rhys) comes with all the late twentieth/ early twenty-first century American fractures and obsessions. Driven by work, cynical, haunted by family pain and dysfunction. All of it brought, grudgingly and on assignment, into Mister Roger’s orbit. Instead of the 400 word puff piece Jundo was supposed to write, he turns in a 10,000 word journey of the heart. Link is above. I recommend reading the article, as much a balm as the movie itself. Here’s a excerpt that I found especially interesting.
“Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, ‘The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.'”
Heaven here and now is actually the way heaven is construed in the New Testament, especially in The Gospel of John. That is, heaven is more a quality of life than a quantity of life. At least in the film, Fred Rogers does seem to be living in heaven here and now. Not meaning a world without conflict or suffering. But a world in which love and connection are happening all the time, at least with Mr. Rogers.
Fred Rogers may have been, most certainly was, one of a kind. But he reminds us, in both films, of what is beautiful, extraordinary and astonishing, about our kind — about humankind. Just now, we’re needing that.