I remember watching Mr. Rogers when I was a kid in the 80’s. I wasn’t an ardent fan, and there was something about the show that as I grew older seemed really hokey and fake to me. That was long before I became a Christian. Now my children and I throughly enjoy Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
I didn’t know much about Fred Rogers, other than the occasional urban legend about him being a sharp shooter for the Seals and having tattoos all over his arms so that he had to wear long sleeves whenever on set. That was about all I knew about him until recently when I saw the documentary (2018) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which opened my eyes, and my heart, to the kindness, passion, and legacy of this man.
It was then that I learned of his attending seminary and being ordained as a Presbyterian minister (an ordination he renewed and held all of his life), as well as his study under prominent child psychologist Margaret McFarland.
It was then that my culturally influenced opinion of Mr. Rogers changed dramatically. It was then that my appreciation was radically formed about what he set out to do, and actually did to a large degree, by shaping generations toward kindness and love–via the television of all things.
The newest movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (95% on Rotten Tomatoes; I would have given it a 99%) where Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers (interestingly Tom and Fred are 6th cousins apparently), has undoubtedly increased my appreciation even more of Mr. Rogers.
Tom Hanks, perhaps one of the greatest and most gifted actors of his generation, does a phenomenal job portraying Fred Rogers, and delivers an unforgettable performance. But the movie was not at all what I was expecting. Going into the film I knew very little about it and I suppose I was expecting something similar to the documentary that I had seen the year before.
It was nothing of the sort.
It was a film “inspired by the true events” (though there is much fictitious portrayal) that tells the story of journalist Tom Junod and his relationship with Fred as he was assigned to write an article about him for Esquire magazine in 1998 (you can read the powerful Esquire article here). The movie turns out to be more about him, and his relationship with his father, than it does Mr. Rogers.
I found myself relating to the unexpected lead character of the movie, Lloyd Vogel (portraying the journalist Tom Junod) who has an incredibly fractured relationship with his father. I myself grew up without my biological father, and had a very difficult relationship with my step-father, and so the movie portrayal of their fractured relationship touched a massive nerve.
I found myself weeping in the movie theatre–not cute crying, mind you…embarrassingly weeping.
There is an incredibly touching scene when Lloyd is sitting next to his father’s death bed and his father apologizes for all the selfishness and harm that he has done to his son and tells him that he has always loved him. And after an infuriating expression is made on the face of the son, the son pauses for a moment and you can see the bitterness slough off before he slowly replies, “I love you too, Dad.”
I simply lost it.
It forced me to once again recognize bitterness and pain in my own heart toward my father, step-father, and others in my life, and calls me to let go. Calls me to forgive. Calls me to love.
In another powerful scene, Fred and Lloyd are eating at a Chinese restaurant (you can catch a glimpse of the real Mrs. Rogers as an extra in the restaurant), and Fred asks Lloyd to do an exercise with him; to be silent for one minute and think of all the people that “loved him into being.” The movie depiction comes from when Fred actually did this in his 1997 acceptance speech when he received the Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award.
A hush then comes over the restaurant as people overhear Fred and inadvertently join in the exercise. Hardly any eye is dry in the restaurant 60 seconds later, including Lloyds. Including mine now in the theatre.
I immediately grabbed my phone in the middle of the theatre and texted a couple of people that have loved me into being.
I want to invite you to do this exercise, right now as you are reading this. Stop reading, perhaps close your eyes, and for 60 seconds think of those that have helped you become who you are, those who have cared about you and wanted only the best for you in life.
As I watched the movie I found myself wanting to be like Mr. Rogers; patient, kind, empathetic, caring, and an amazing prayer warrior. But instead I found that I saw much more of myself in the journalist Lloyd; broken, hurting, angry, frustrated, proud, and in need.
In need of kindness. In need of love. In need of forgiveness. In need of repair and wholeness.
And it is there that I find Jesus, who tells me that he comes for those that need a doctor, for those that are sick, and not those who are healthy. (Mark 2:17)
I am grateful for this unexpectedly stirring film. I think it is an incredible tribute to Mr. Rogers, who was by no means a saint (I think the movie does a good job trying to minimize this saintly conception of Fred), but rather someone who fought to help make our world better by fighting against the culture of cynicism, hatred, and selfishness, teaching us a better way.
A way of kindness, empathy, listening, and being a good–even a great–neighbor.
(For more from Jon, check out jonsherwood.com. Used with permission.)