FRED ROGERS was an American Presbyterian minister more famous for hosting a popular children’s television programme between 1968 and 2001. A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood (Cert. PG) begins with Tom Hanks, as the presenter, introducing his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Singing, he opens the set’s door, and dons a red cardigan and sneakers. Now he’s sitting comfortably, he can begin.
Framing the film around a typical programme format gives the audience a snapshot of what both Rogers and his series were about. Each sequence is prefaced and concluded by footage of a Lego-like neighbourhood — clever, because it allowed children to make the leap between Fred’s make-believe world and their own realities. Hanks adroitly steers his character between schmaltz and over-seriousness. The film proclaims that anything mentionable then becomes manageable. The subjects that Rogers tackled included death, sharing, politeness, and acceptance. “We’re trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings,” he says. And, he might add, warmly and reassuringly.
There was no shying away from tough issues such as moving house, losing friends, and marital break-up. He even addressed Robert Kennedy’s assassination. The film, of course, can only imply that there had been a wide range of topics over time. Instead, it concentrates on one theme. Reminiscent of the BBC’s Playschool, Rogers opens a window to reveal the episode’s subject-matter. We see a photo of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). His face bears traces of blood.
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It emerges that Lloyd is an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. His editor assigns him to do a cover story on Fred. Very soon, it becomes apparent how troubled the writer is by the neglect of his wayward father (another superb performance from Chris Cooper). Fred asks his viewers: “Do you know what forgiveness is?” before telling them that it’s about releasing the anger that we have against someone. (Can You Ever Forgive Me? was the previous film by the director, Marielle Heller).
Rogers uses Lloyd as a case in point. From thereon, the film is mainly about the reporter and how Rogers gently leads him towards reconciliation. It is a film that could have gone horribly wrong. Utter goodness is notoriously difficult to portray dramatically. Hanks embodies entelechy, that ongoing movement towards wholeness. Lloyd considers Rogers a saint. Mrs Rogers retorts: “If you think of him as a saint, he becomes unattainable.” Yes, he reads scripture and prays, but self-doubt and anger are among inner demons that he struggles with and for which he seeks forgiveness.
We would never know from the film that Rogers was a cleric. To be fair, he became one only after being a broadcaster. Apparently, he rarely gave overt expression to Christian beliefs in his shows, preferring viewers to discern the underlying beliefs from the content. The medium is the message. The use of stock characters, puppets, music, and so on, all satisfactorily contribute to what is often described as edutainment. Rogers followed Emily Dickinson’s doctrine that “Success in Circuit lies.” The best way of expounding the gospel, he would say, is to “tell it slant”. Listen and learn.
On current release.