Every day, he walked through that door, put on his sweater and told us it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Every day.
Did he lie?
On television, his neighborhood did look beautiful. The sky was always blue. The porch swing always looked welcoming. The shoes were always where they should be and the trolley was never late.
But Mister Rogers didn’t live in our neighborhood. He didn’t live in Lloyd Vogel’s.
As a journalist for Esquire magazine, Lloyd has seen his share of ugly days in ugly neighborhoods. He’s been through third-world shantytowns and blighted apartments. But some of the ugliest neighborhoods masquerade as the prettiest. Manicured suburbs hide dark secrets. Gated communities lock monsters inside. Beautiful? That’s a laugh.
Lloyd doesn’t do beautiful anymore. Not for a long time, Maybe not since his father ran out on him. He doesn’t write about the true or the noble or the right or the pure, because in his experience there’s always something worse underneath. The real world doesn’t do noble, and nothing is pure for long. Such things belong in make-believe realms filled with cardboard castles and talking tigers.
But then Esquire, for a special edition on “heroes,” asks Lloyd to write a profile piece on Fred “Mister Rogers” Rogers. The editor isn’t looking for a cynical unpacking or a scathing expose, like Lloyd’s used to writing; just 400 words that give a wee bit of insight to the man behind that (in Lloyd’s words) “hokey kids’ show.”
Mister Rogers, a hero? “A guy who plays with puppets for a living?” Lloyd sneers. How does that qualify? And why does Lloyd have to interview him?
Because everyone else on the list refused to sit down and talk with the journalist, that’s why.
When Lloyd tells his wife about his newest assignment, she’s happy for him. Andrea remembers watching Mister Rogers as a kid. He was so kind, so gentle. He made her feel safe. Loved.
“At least it’s someone good,” she tells Lloyd.
“Yeah,” Lloyd says. “We’ll see.”
Lloyd does indeed see. From their first hurried conversation over the phone, the journalist notices that there’s something different about Fred Rogers, a knife of gentle determination that can cut through even the most cynical cloth.
First, it’s Fred on the phone: Not his assistant, not his handler, not his lawyer. Mister Rogers himself. And when Lloyd suggests they set another time to talk because he knows (he says) that Fred has more important things to do right then, Fred disagrees: He’s on the phone with Lloyd right now. And that makes Lloyd, in that moment, the most important thing in Fred’s life.
That’s just the beginning. Again and again, Lloyd is struck by Fred Rogers’ knack for being present. His every word and every interaction is pregnant with a powerful sense of intentionality. When Fred’s listening to you, he’s not also thinking about his grocery list or his next appointment or anything else. It’s just him and you. That’s it.
True, that character trait tends to drive Fred’s inner circle a little crazy: When he spends too much time with a young guest on set, Fred’s longtime producer Margy sighs that he’s “ruining my life.” But for Mister Rogers, people aren’t things to be squeezed into the day’s calendar: They’re to be treated as the precious, sacred treasures they are.
At first, Lloyd—ever the cynic—can’t quite believe it. But the more time he spends with Fred, the more realizes that what you see is what you get, that there’s no dichotomy between Mister Rogers on TV and Fred Rogers in real life. In fact, when Lloyd tries to suggest that Mister Rogers is some kind of character construct, Fred can’t even comprehend the distinction Lloyd is suggesting.
Fred’s integrity and intentionality lend more authority to the lessons he tries to teach, and he teaches them by the trunkful here. The centerpiece lesson he tries to help Lloyd learn is the importance of forgiveness—an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially for Lloyd, who has so much to forgive.
But every moment Fred’s onscreen becomes a teachable one. When he struggles to set up a tent for the show, he suggests keeping it intact: He wants to teach children that “even when adults make plans they don’t [always] turn out the way they hoped.” He talks about time and love and fear and frustration, and his own frustration that we tend to appreciate a child “for what he will be, not what he is.”
Mister Rogers may be gentle, but he’s no coward. Lloyd sees that the supposedly milquetoast television personality has dealt with issues that few others would touch: war, racism, divorce, death. These are serious things, and Fred treats them very seriously. But he wraps these issues in blankets of kindness, reassuring his young fans that each of them is special. They are loved. They have value. He offers the same lessons to the adults in his life, too, including Lloyd—an embittered journalist who desperately needs to hear it.
“He likes everybody,” someone says of Fred to Lloyd. “But he loves people like you.” Broken people. Hurting people. Turns out, Fred didn’t just agree to sit down with Lloyd: He asked to. Like some sort of sweatered saint, Fred Rogers facilitates a near-miraculous work of healing in Lloyd’s life and in the life of his family.
The real Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who believed that (according to the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor) his children’s show was a pulpit of sorts, from which he preached Jesus’ message of unconditional love and boundless mercy (albeit without mentioning Jesus’ name). This movie retains not just that message, but hints at the quiet faith that lay beneath it.
We see Fred pray, sometimes to Lloyd’s discomfort. His Bible makes an appearance or two. And when he talks to a dying man, he asks for the man to pray for him. When Lloyd says that was a kind thing for Fred to do—knowing that this little act of faith would make the dying man feel a sense of purpose—Fred looks at him aghast: Anyone who’s going through what that dying fellow is going through must be especially close to God, Fred says.
We see Lloyd in bed with his wife (they’re in their pajamas and talking). Lloyd’s father, Jerry, has a new woman in his life that he wants Lloyd to get to know. There’s some discussion of Jerry’s past philandering.
Lloyd and Jerry get into a physical altercation at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding, with both suffering some cuts and bruises after the scuffle. Someone collapses from a medical condition. Lloyd also collapses, apparently from overwork and not enough sleep. A kid swings around a toy sword, hitting his own dad in the shin. We hear about how Lloyd cared for his dying mother, and how much pain the woman was in.
Characters say “d–n,” “h—” and “crap.” God’s name is misused three times, while Jesus’ name is abused once.
Jerry drinks heavily, and he gets drunk at his daughter’s wedding (leading to that fight with his son). He drinks elsewhere, too, including in a hospital bed, against doctor’s orders. Lloyd pours him out a glass of bourbon and serves himself one, too.
Lloyd’s relationship with Jerry is perhaps the movie’s central point of tension. We see and feel the bad blood between the father and son—blood so bad that Lloyd can barely stomach talking with the guy for much of the movie. [Spoiler Warning] Eventually, we learn the primary reason for the father-son split: Jerry ran out on his wife when she got sick, forcing Lloyd and his sister to care for her all by themselves.
It’s not always beautiful in our neighborhoods. Mister Rogers never thought it was.
“There is no normal life that is free from pain,” he tells Lloyd. Even Mister Rogers has suffered. Even he grieves. Even he—Mister Rogers, the kindest, gentlest person to ever grace a television show—gets angry. He talks to Lloyd about how sometimes he feels like mashing all the low keys on his piano down—hard. “BOMMMMM!” He growls for effect. All of those emotions are real and important. We all can be sad or scared or angry. These emotions, in themselves, are not wrong.
It’s what we do with them—or what we undo because of them—that matters.
In the movie, Fred’s wife, Joanne, tells Lloyd that Fred isn’t who he is by accident. He works at it. Fred’s intentionality, his kindness, his goodness are products of not just who Fred is, but of who he wants to be—who he thinks he needs to be for the children who watch and trust him.
A vignette—not in this movie, but in the original Esquire article that inspired the film—illustrates this constancy. In the article, “Can You Say … Hero?,” Tom Junod writes:
“Mister Rogers weighed 143 pounds because he has weighed 143 pounds as long as he has been Mister Rogers, because once upon a time, around thirty-one years ago, Mister Rogers stepped on a scale, and the scale told him that Mister Rogers weighs 143 pounds. No, not that he weighed 143 pounds, but that he weighs 143 pounds. … And so, every day, Mister Rogers refuses to do anything that would make his weight change—he neither drinks, nor smokes, nor eats flesh of any kind, nor goes to bed late at night, nor sleeps late in the morning, nor even watches television—and every morning, when he swims, he steps on a scale in his bathing suit and his bathing cap and his goggles, and the scale tells him that he weighs 143 pounds. This has happened so many times that Mister Rogers has come to see that number as a gift, as a destiny fulfilled, because, as he says, ‘the number 143 means “I love you.” It takes one letter to say “I” and four letters to say “love” and three letters to say “you.” One hundred and forty-three. “I love you.” Isn’t that wonderful?’”
It didn’t come by accident. But through hard work and intentionality and, yes, faith, Fred Rogers told his young fans “I love you” in everything he did. When I was a child, he told me, too.
These days, I’m a lot like Lloyd Vogel. I can be cynical. I’ve seen would-be heroes rise and fall and I don’t believe in role models.
Except, maybe, for Mister Rogers.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gives us a hero—one very different from those we typically see on screen and one, in many ways, better. Captain America or Wonder Woman are cool and all, and yes, they save the day. But here, Mister Rogers is more than just a hero: He asks you to be one, too.
The world is filled with ugly neighborhoods, yes. But if you look closely, you’ll find beauty in them, too—and the beauty in each of us. And if we try, we can make our neighborhoods a little more beautiful, just by being us—the us we are and the us we want to be. We can take those same keys on our emotional piano—the ones that we sometimes want to smash—and make music with them. We can turn our pain to purpose. We can love, just as we are loved.
Our entertainment landscape is filled with fun stories, powerful stories, even inspirational stories. Many a movie will make you laugh or cry or think. But very few make you want to be a better person. And that’s what makes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a pretty beautiful movie.
After seeing, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, your family may be inspired to reach out to make your own neighborhood a better place. Here are some ideas from Focus on the Family on ways to reach out.
Show Your Kids How to Be Hospitable to your Neighbors
Transforming Lives and Hearts Through Hospitality
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.