A large lump in my throat swelled as I watched a group of subway passengers sing, “Won’t you be my neighbor.” While the action was on-screen and overtly sentimental, it had me longing for the innocence of simpler times and a sense that we are all together in this beautiful life.
Yes, it’s easy to lose hope in our world. People and places can seem anything but beautiful. Glancing at the top news stories of any given day, we clearly live in desperate times. It’s true unless you are Mr. Rogers. Mr. Fred McFeely Rogers spent 30 years entertaining and teaching children to love each other by using his skills as a musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister.
Oh how I long for Mr. Rogers and a generation of healers to make our neighborhoods happy and safe. In 2001, two years before Mr. Rogers passed away, the lights in America dimmed when his television show went off the air. How would we ever replace Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – a world of kindness, guidance, and gentle understanding?
In today’s world, the question rings louder as we meet Oscar-winner and Hollywood golden-boy, Tom Hanks who deftly plays Mr. Rogers. On screen and off, Hanks embodies Mr. Roger’s persona. From solving the Da Vinci Code to playing countless other heroes and changemakers like Walt Disney, Captain Chelsey Sullenberger (aka Scully) and Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovella, Hanks is understandably the perfect choice for director, Marielle Heller’s coveted role.
Hanks’ real-life persona and reputation as a caring and charismatic person embody the person and life Mr. Roger’s led. Heller’s movie is told through the eyes of the film’s journalist character, Lloyd Vogel, played by actor Matthew Rhys. It’s an ingenious plot, and one that traces the true story of Tom Junod’s reluctant interview of Mr. Rogers for a 1998 Esquire magazine cover story entitled, Can You Say Hero?
Vogel’s jaded view of the world and impending fatherhood are examined in light of his reputation for a sharp tongue. His plight tugs at our personal sensibilities and circumstances, as we watch Mr. Rogers help him and children watching his show, who deal with emotional insecurities and a critical world.
When we first meet him in the movie’s opening scene, Vogel is winning an award and telling a crowded room, “Writing is one of the few professions where we get to change a broken world with our words.” The litmus test comes, however, when his estranged father wants to reconnect after deserting Vogel’s dying mother, and his anger and pain resurface.
Armed with penny loafers and a cozy, red sweater, Hanks delivers a performance worthy of Mr. Roger’s daunting shoes. Through Hanks, we face the anxious, troubled world that is no match for his soft eyes and soothing voice. Like Mr. Rogers, who’s unique qualities and faith in the possibility of a better, more trusting world, we rise above the cacophony of fear, hatred and distrust.
For more than 30 years, Mister Rogers made millions of children feel like they were visiting with a trusted friend. In over 900 episodes, his radical kindness, acceptance, and empathy created what TV Guide called a sanctuary for young and old, alike.
Yes, Mr. Rogers prayed for people by name and got angry like we all do. But he looked for positive ways to express that anger. His story reminds us that life is never free from pain but it shapes us in positive ways if we learn to let go. Otherwise, we can never be happy.
Maybe it’s up to each of us to carry a piece of Mr. Rogers with us. This truth suddenly struck me in one of the scenes where the iconic Twin Towers from New York City appear. I lamented how much has changed since those Towers fell. Hatred has ripped through America and the new war on terror is our inability to trust each other.
Thankfully, movies help us to journey through situational circumstances even if it means healing together while sitting in a dark room full of strangers. I can only hope that we learn to embrace and remember the way Mr. Rogers made people feel and that wonderful song on the subway car can help us to rebuild a truly Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Postscript – Fred Rogers had an astonishing range of honors bestowed upon him, from his induction into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In all, he received more than forty honorary degrees.