“He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater.”
~Tom Junod, My Friend Mister Rogers
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inspiring and, in the end, a challenging portrayal of Fred Rogers, AKA ‘Mister Rogers’. It took some suspension of disbelief, though. Tom Hanks does as good of a job as is possible, but no one can replace the real thing. Mr. Rogers was distinctive in appearance and behavior. The production team could have used expensive CGI to make Hanks look more like the real man, but that was not necessary. It wasn’t a face that made the children’s tv show host so well respected and widely influential. A few minutes in, I was able to forget I was watching an actor playing a role and became immersed in the personality and the moral character that was cast upon the screen of imagination, the movie presented as if a new episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had just been released.
The way the movie was done was highly effective. It was based on an Esquire article, Can You Say … Hero? by Tom Junod. It was jarring at first in taking a roundabout approach, but it might have been the only way to go about it for the intended purpose. Fred Rogers appears to have been a person who was genuinely and fully focused on other people, not on himself. So a biopic that captures his essence requires demonstrating this concern for others, which makes him a secondary character in the very movie that is supposedly about him. We explore his world by experiencing the profound impact he had on specific people, in this case not only Junod but also his family, while there are other scenes showing the personable moments of Mr. Rogers meeting with children. The story arc is about Junod’s change of heart, whereas Mr. Rogers remains who he was from the start.
This leaves Mr. Rogers himself as an unknown to viewers not already familiar with the biographical details. We are shown little about his personal life and nothing about his past, but the narrow focus helps to get at something essential. We already were given a good documentary about him from last year. This movie was serving a different purpose. It offers a window to peer through, to see how he related and what it meant for those who experienced it. Part of the hidden background was his Christianity, as he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Yet even as Christianity inspired him, he never put his faith out in the public view. As Jesus taught to pray in secret, Fred Rogers took it one step further by keeping his faith almost entirely hidden. He didn’t want to force his beliefs onto others. The purpose of religion is not dogma or outward forms. If religion matters at all, it’s about how it transforms people. That is what Mr. Rogers, as a man and a media personality, was all about.
Some people don’t understand this and so don’t grasp what made him so special. Armond White at National Review wrote that, “Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster don’t show enough faith in Rogers’ remedies—and not enough interest in their religious origins. In short, the movie seems wary of faith (it briefly mentions that Rogers was an ordained minister) and settles for secular sentimentality to account for his sensibility and behavior. This not only weakens the film, but it also hobbles Hanks’s characterization” (Christian Faith Is the Missing Ingredient in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). That misses the entire message being conveyed, not only the message of the movie but, more importantly, the message of Mr. Rogers himself. As Greg Forster subtly puts it, “that is of course the whole goddamned point here” (Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable).
To have put Mr. Roger’s Christianity front and center would be to do what Mr. Rogers himself intentionally avoided. He met people where they were at, rather than trying to force or coerce others into his belief system, not that he would have thought of his moral concern as a belief system. He was not an evangelical missionary seeking to preach and proselytize, much less attempting to save the lost souls of heathenish children or make Christian America great again. In his way of being present to others, he was being more Christ-like than most Christians, as Jesus never went around trying to convert people. Jesus wasn’t a ‘good Christian’ and, by being vulnerable in his humanity, neither was Fred Rogers. Rather, his sole purpose was just to be kind to others. Religion, in its highest form, is about how one relates to others and to the world. Thomas Paine voiced his own radical faith with the words, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” I suspect Mr. Rogers would have agreed. It really is that simple or it should be.
That childlike directness of his message, the simplicity of being fully present and relating well, that was the magical quality of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I didn’t appreciate it when I was a kid. It was a fixture of my childhood, a show I watched and that was all. But looking back on it, I can sense what made it unique. Like the man himself, the show was extremely simple, one might call it basic, demonstrated by the same ragged puppets he used his entire career. This was no fancy Jim Henson muppet production. What made it real and compelling to a child was what the people involved put into it, not only Fred Rogers but so many others who were dedicated to the show. Along with the simplicity, there was a heartfelt sincerity to it all. The scenes with the puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger most of all, were often more emotionally raw and real than what is typically done by professional actors in Hollywood movies.
That is what stands out about Tom Hank’s performance in bringing this to life. He is one of the few actors who could come close to pulling it off and even his attempt was imperfect. But I have to give Hanks credit for getting the essence right. The emotional truth came through. Sincerity is no small thing, in this age of superficiality and cynicism. To call it a breath of fresh air is a criminal understatement. Mr. Rogers was entirely committed to being human and acknowledging the humanity in others. That is such a rare thing. I’m not sure how many people understood that about him, what exactly made him so fascinating to children and what created a cult-like following among the generations who grew up watching his show. As a character says about the drug D in A Scanner Darkly, “You’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.”
Some people claim that “sincerity is bullshit” (Harry Frankfurt), a sentiment I understand in feeling jaded about the world. But I must admit that Fred Rogers’ sincerity most definitely and deeply resonates for me, based on my own experience in the New Thought worldview I was raised in, a touchy-feel form of Christianity where emotional authenticity trumps outward form, basically Protestantism pushed to its most extreme endpoint. Seeing the emotional rawness in Mr. Rogers’ life, although coming from a different religious background than my own, reminded me of the sincerity that I’ve struggled with in myself. I’ve always been an overly sincere person and often overly serious, that is how I think of myself… but can anyone really ever be too sincere? The message of Mr. Rogers is that we all once were emotionally honest when children and only later forgot this birthright. It remains in all of us and that core of our humanity is what he sought to touch upon, and indeed many people responded to this and felt genuinely touched. The many testimonies of ordinary people to Mr. Rogers’ legacy are inspiring.
This worldview of authenticity was made clear in one particular scene in the movie. “Vogel says he believes his dining companion likes “people like me … broken people.” Rogers is having none of it. “I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers begins, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I know you are a man of conviction, a person who knows the difference between what is wrong and what is right. Try to remember that your relationship with your father also helped to shape those parts. He helped you become what you are”” (Cathleen Falsani, Meditating On Love and Connection with Mr. Rogers and C.S. Lewis). That dialogue was not pulled from real life, according to Tom Junod in his latest piece My Friend Mister Rogers, but even Junod found himself emotionally moved when watching the scene. The point is that what mattered to Fred Rogers was conviction and he lived his life through his own conviction, maybe a moral obligation even. The man was exacting in his discipline and extremely intentional in everything he did, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, as seen in how he maintained his weight at exactly 143 lbs throughout his adult life and in how he kept FBI-style files on all of his friends and correspondents. He had so little interest in himself that even his wife of 50 years knew little about his personal experience and memories that he rarely talked about. His entire life, his entire being apparently was focused laser-like on other people.
He was not a normal human. How does someone become like that? One gets the sense that Mr. Rogers in the flesh would have, with humility, downplayed such an inquiry. He let on that he too was merely human, that he worried and struggled like anyone else. The point, as he saw it, was that he was not a saint or a hero. He was just a man who felt deeply and passionately moved to take action. But where did that powerful current of empathy and compassion come from? He probably would have given all credit to God, as his softspoken and often unspoken faith appears to have been unwavering. Like the Blues Brothers, he was a man on a mission from God. He was not lacking in earnestness. And for those of us not so fully earnest, it can seem incomprehensible that such a mortal human could exist: “He was a genius,” Junod wrote, “he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved” (My Friend Mister Rogers). Yet for all the easy ways it would be to idolize him or dismiss him, he continues to speak to the child in all of us. Maybe ‘Mister Rogers’ was not a mystery, but instead maybe we are making it too complicated. We need to step back and, as he so often advised, remember what it was like to be a child.
Fred Rogers was a simple man who spoke simply and that is what made him so radically challenging. “Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear.” Junod goes on to say, “It isn’t that he is revered but not followed; so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.” He might as well have been talking about Jesus Christ, the divine made flesh. But if there was spiritual truth in Fred Rogers, he taught that it was a spiritual truth in all of us, that we are children of God. Rather than what would Mister Rogers do, what will we do in remembering him?