"We could all use a little kindness."
This quote is placed at the top of the movie poster for "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," and it truly embodies the persona of Fred Rogers as I remember him. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was a staple of my television viewing along with "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company." What intrigued me the most about Mister Rogers was that he was so polite, attentive and caring. I also thought his wardrobe was cool. The zip-up red and green cardigan sweaters, neatly pressed khakis, gold tie clips and lace-up blue sneakers won over my 8-year-old heart. One of my favorite opening parts of Rogers' show was the red trolley that would transport your mind to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. And being a cat person, which I still am today, I especially adored one of Make-Believe's shyest residents, Daniel Striped Tiger. Looking back, the wholesomeness of Rogers, which was exemplified by his Christian faith, made television a special sanctuary for children where they could learn and grow.
"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is set in 1998, three years before Rogers went off the air, and it shows how the world had become even more cynical since the first episode of his program in 1968. This cynicism is personified in Esquire magazine's investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned to do a hero profile on Rogers. Matthew Rhys plays Vogel as a journalist with a skeptical arrogance who feels that feature writing is "puff reporting." As a man, Vogel carries tremendous heartache from his upbringing. These heartaches are hidden wounds resulting from his father's abandonment, and unbeknownst to Vogel, it affects his writing and those closest to him. So, when his editor assigns him to Rogers, the only person on the hero list who would speak with Vogel, Vogel scoffs at having to interview a man who "works with puppets." When Vogel complains to his wife about his assignment, mainly being doubtful of Rogers' inherent goodness, she replies, "Don't ruin my childhood."
Vogel's character is based on the real-life Esquire reporter Tom Junod. Vogel could actually be viewed as the main character of the film since the major storyline is how Rogers' compassion changes Vogel's life. However, we do get to see, as a result of Tom Hanks' masterful portrayal of Rogers, the genuineness and serene discernment of a man who greatly influenced three generations of children. Many people would call Vogel's assignment to interview Rogers a chance meeting. Some would call it a God wink. I would tweak the latter and say their encounter was divinely predestined. God has a unique way of placing the right people in your life at the right time, and oftentimes this happens when you least expect it. Vogel was so self-absorbed in the prestige of his career, and this masked the rage and resentment he felt toward his father. He was so consumed with anger that he did not realize he greatly needed a friend. Rogers became that friend and ministered to the burden of hurt Vogel was carrying.
While there has been some criticism that "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" fails to fully illustrate Rogers' faith, particularly because it leaves out that he was an ordained minister, viewers can still come away with a better understanding of a well-known biblical principle that Christ demonstrated: Love thy neighbor as thyself. As I watched this film, I began thinking, "How do I treat my neighbor, and am I really concerned about my neighbor's well-being?" I reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus answered the deceitful lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). As most of you know this story, the good Samaritan helped a man who was severely beaten on a Jericho road. Before the Samaritan's arrival, a priest and a Levite passed this man and blatantly ignored his injuries. Vogel's psychological condition was pretty much like this man's physical state. Vogel had emotional scars on his deeply cut soul. Many people had passed him by until he met Rogers.
Toward the end of the film, Rogers is shown on his knees praying for people, and he calls out the name of every person in Vogel's immediate family. Imagine how much better the world would be if we were to take the time to care for our neighbor the way Rogers did and as Jesus taught, if we were to take the time to show a little kindness.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.