Released: 23rd January
Seen: 29th January
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never made the journey down to the shores of Australia. As far as I am personally aware, as much as I can tell from my research, none of the 912 episodes of the PBS program ever aired on any of the networks that were broadcasting in Australia at any point during its incredibly long run. This period of time when Mister Rogers was inviting the children of America to visit him in his neighborhood started long before my life began, and ended in the 2000’s without me ever once being able to sit down and see the legendarily kind man walk into his home and change from a work jacket and work shoes into a red jumper and pair of comfortable sneakers.
Even without the show itself being available, the iconography of Mister Rogers’ has transcended the walls of the set that would surround the man who talked to children with kindness and respect that few others would show them. His red sweater and gentle voice are so well known that, even without the context of the show being available, he managed to still have some form of impact on lives outside of the USA. It’s strange to realise how powerful his kindness was, since it was able to make the journey from WQED studios in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to the shores of Australia just on its reputation. I have always known exactly one thing about Mister Rogers, one thing and one thing only… he was a kind man. He was kind to the point where one has to question if it’s real. That’s seemingly the question that was asked decades ago that would eventually lead to a film that’s as soothing as a big tall mug of hot cocoa.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is loosely based on the article “Can You Say… Hero”. Loosely based, in this context, means that they took the essence of the relationship described in the article and several key moments (oddly enough, they didn’t take the scene where Mister Rogers pissed on a tree in a graveyard, which would’ve certainly been interesting to witness) but took the author out of his own story. They took out the author, Tom Junod, to replace him with someone who had a more obvious familial issue that could carry the narrative and allow the complex idea of extreme kindness changing a person’s worldview into a simpler story about a man, who has serious issues with his father being taught how to forgive and be a better person. The entire story focuses on this relationship between a journalist with a reputation for writing things that are known to upset people and a TV show host who was the closest thing we will ever have to a perfectly kind human being and throughout the entire film all I could think was “God I am so glad Mister Rogers never had Twitter, it might’ve broken him”
When Tom Junod wrote his Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero” in 1998, I’m almost positive that he didn’t expect it to end up being turned into a major motion picture starring the man who was on the poster for Saving Private Ryan, and yet when you read his article (which I highly recommend), the character of Mister Rogers turns into a real person and you become instantly aware that the only person who could play such a being would have to be the nicest guy in Hollywood. This film just had to wait a little bit for Captain Miller to get a few more grey hairs so that he would be ready to take on the role he’s been building to his entire life. Even as someone who did not grow up seeing Mister Rogers, I absolutely grew up seeing Tom Hanks and the same feeling of “No one can be this nice all the time” hit me every time I saw him. It’s the kind of dream casting that only comes along once in a lifetime, the kind of casting that will have you saying to yourself “Well, how did I get here?”.
Turns out we got here by chance and luck because this role is one Tom’s clearly been building towards for years and here he has it all down. Is he doing a perfect copy of Mister Rogers? Gosh no, I don’t think such a thing would even be possible but he evokes the same feeling one gets when one sees a picture of Mister Rogers. He has a kind reserved warmth and charm that makes you lean in ever so slightly, ruining any semblance of good posture, just so you can hear every word he says and catch every drop of the kind wisdom that’s coming out of him.
His perfect counter is Matthew Rhys as the substitute author who is now named Lloyd Vogel who is currently having a fight with his father over a troubled past. It is worth repeating, Lloyd is a very different person than Tom Junod is (and this is explained best in Junod’s recent piece My Friend Mister Rogers) but he is there to help us, the audience, see just how special Mister Rogers actually is. A lot of viewers will mostly remember Mister Rogers through the eyes of a child, but Lloyd is here to show Mister Rogers through the eyes of a jaded adult who needs a reminder of just how good it’s possible to be. Both actors carry the film and sit on polar opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, and they elevate the movie to untold heights by their dedication to these creations.
The entire film, from start to finish, is so warm and loving that one always ends up worrying how it might end. Could it go too far with the kindness? Would it become pure saccharine by an abundance of kindness and through that over-sweetness cause the audience to turn on Mister Rogers like he’d just said “trans women are women” on Twitter? No, turns out it doesn’t get too saccharine. Turns out that a movie full of genuine constant kindness can be dramatic and funny and heartfelt while also reminding us that we always have the chance to be kind and respectful, something we seem to need a reminder of nowadays.
The film shows us how many ways kindness and respect can be taken, be it in the form of just listening to someone else’s problems or telling them that they’re strong on the inside or just finding a way to unleash anger in a way that doesn’t cause harm. Some suggested ways that one can release anger include things like hitting some clay or playing all the low notes on a piano keyboard. By the way, this movie’s going to contain the saddest chord you’ll ever hear so be prepared for that surprising emotional reaction. While this film, like many before it, is trying to engage the audience long enough to elicit an emotional reaction it’s also doing another thing that many other films have… it has a point to make and it wants you to pay attention to that point, because it’s important.
It’s hard to write something about a film that’s so full of kindness because I have to try and explain why I like a film full of kindness. There’s no great revelation here, the phrase “Mister Rogers was a kind person” sums the movie up nicely but it’s the kind of phrase that gets met by someone finding the picture of Nicholas Cage saying “YOU DON’T SAY” and posting it as a wonderfully witty retort. Even though that’s an obvious summation of the movie, it’s also accurate.
The movie is reminding us of just how kind Mister Rogers was, but it also subtly encourages the audience to try a little bit of that kindness. In an age where it’s easy to just fire off a raging response of “Fuck you and your mother and the pet you like the most” to just about any slight, this film encourages a quiet nod and forgiveness. Maybe it’s a message we won’t take on board, maybe that idea died on February 27th 2003 when we no longer had Mister Rogers to welcome us to his neighborhood and teach us what kindness meant, but it’s nice that a film tried to send that message out and just be a good film about a good man who did good things with the time that he had available to him. Maybe we can capture some of that kindness again, maybe we aren’t too far gone.
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