I just came out from viewing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And this is funny: last night I watched the award-winning 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I like being a sort of completist.
Bear this in mind: I don’t like documentaries.
I can’t think of another documentary I’d watch on purpose if’s not about science fiction (for example, later tonight I’m watching the Galaxy Quest retrospective <— see, that’s sci-fi).
But the Fred Rogers documentary is really something special. Partly riding on nostalgia, and partly posited as a wish fulfillment for adults who don’t like who they’ve become, knowing Mr. Rogers loved everybody makes all the difference. And “everybody” includes me. And YOU.
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I cried like a baby during the documentary to be reminded that someone likes me. Just exactly the way I am.
So I was excited to catch Tom Hanks’ dramatized version of Fred Rogers. What did I walk away with? A complicated set of feelings.
First off, Hanks was just lovely in the part. At times he sounded a little more like southerner Forrest Gump than Fred Rogers, but the actor freely admitted he never intended to mimic Rogers. He wanted to capture the essence. And in that, I believed him.
When he talked to the camera and told me he liked me, I felt liked. I felt accepted and appreciated. And ultimately, though the film was ostensibly about a jaded reporter and his dysfunctional family — which would normally bore me silly — the message of loving acceptance came shining bright, shining through. The message was sincere and sorely needed in this era of intolerance and hate-mongering.
This is timely. This is needful.
What I didn’t like
I wanted more Fred Rogers. More Tom Hanks. He felt sidelined in his own movie. 75% of the film focuses on Lloyd Vogel (a sort of real, sort of fictional character). Way too much time was spent with Lloyd, his wife, his father, and various family members (the baby was super cute, though). I wasn’t caught up in the ‘reporter angle’. And I’ve been a reporter myself, although in my case that didn’t cause rifts in my family. This is a story ostensibly about Mr. Fred Rogers. I was expecting Lloyd’s tale to be a side-plot.
I realize the movie had to ramp up the drama to be a box office success, but what I didn’t expect was that meant taking the spotlight off Mr. Rogers and his fantasy neighborhood. I am deeply grateful I watched the documentary first, to reacquaint me with Trolley, Picture Picture, King Friday the XIII, and of course Daniel Tiger, since the Tom Hanks film didn’t go there enough. Those too few segments taking place on Fred Rogers’ show were weirdly positioned as a dreamscape. And now it seems I must find those old PBS episodes to feel loved and cherished again.
31 seasons of loving acceptance, crossing several generations
The best moment on Neighborhood was — of all things — on a New York subway. Fred Rogers, recognizable TV star and all, loved taking the Subway. In one scene, people in the subway car gave him the side eye at first, wondering if this was actually Rogers himself. Quickly deciding he was, everyone (including two hardened NYC beat cops) sang his famous Won’t You Be My Neighbor song out loud to honor him. I’ve read this actually happened.
You could see Hanks channeling the joy and gratitude of this beautiful experience. Rogers touched so many, in several generations.
Do you realize the show ran for a mind boggling 31 seasons? How many mothers, fathers, and children grew up hearing his message of tolerance and self-forgiveness? Grew up realizing we are not broken, and are all deserving of unconditional love? That we are liked for who we are.
Did anyone tell you this lately? Do you tell this to the people YOU love?
As I said above, I didn’t care for the focus on the reporter and his family. I realize part of this was based on a real-life experience, but it was just your basic family drama, seen a gazillion times before. Yawn. I’m glad Lloyd learned what heroism really is, but it was all so telegraphed. Yes, he forgives his father. His family comes to realize familial love and ends up happier.
But could we get back to the Kingdom of Make Believe now?
It hurt to see Lloyd’s relationship with his dying father. It hit a little too close to home. My father has a disease that steals him from me day by day. He was always my hero, and now he’s a shell of a person who needs more care than my mother and I can handle. I wish I had Mr. Rogers around to tell me how to handle the difficult emotions this brings up.
Sorry. Maybe that’s too much to share. But, as Mr. Rogers makes a point of telling us in this film, being open, honest, and accepting of things like death is one of our greatest challenges. What he says, actually (and this is deeply hopeful), is that “anything mentionable is handle-able.”
I hope so. As Mulder would say, ” I want to believe.”
And yes, I did cry at the end. I was moved by this singular, loving, kind man. I’m a sucker. I just wished there was more Fred Rogers in it.
I wouldn’t have noticed this if I didn’t just watch the documentary, but Joanne Rogers (Mr. Roger’s real life wife) makes a brief cameo in the food diner scene. I almost expected her to say, “I’ll have what she’s having,” but that’s another background story for a different type of movie.
Movie Grade: B+
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Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)
Join the conversation
Rob Williams Administrator
Not having lived in the USA, I haven’t ever heard of Fred Rogers! It amazes me, given how much of American popular culture traverses the globe, that this guy is totally unknown to me! I don’t just mean “I haven’t seen this show”, I mean “Show? What show!”
There are plenty of American shows that I’ve never watched but I am aware of… WKRP In Cincinnati, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, and Laverne & Shirley are three picked at random from the 70’s.
I’m glad this film was so resonant and meaningful for you but, for me, I feel it’ll be a bit like when your aunt mishears you talking about your latest favourite band and buys a birthday present for you which is an album by a similarly named but totally different act and you have to sit politely as a well made but totally irrelevant piece of work passes before you.
Jill Florio Administrator
LOL, Rob. DId that actually happen to you with your aunt?
the show is for the very young, like ages 2-5-ish, so I’m not surprised you never heard of it in the UK. It’s a PBS show (Public Access Show) that probably wasn’t shown anywhere overseas. I could be wrong.
I think the reason this movie and documentary are so good is that it tickles my brain with some of my first memories. I was too young to even get the joke about King Friday XIII — it’s funny now, but it was just the puppet’s name at the time.
Rob Williams Administrator
Oh yes, Jill! Back in the early 70s I was into a band called Christie (they had a big hit with ‘Yellow River’ over here, it got into the top thirty in the USA) and my aunt got me an album by Lou Christie who you might know as he was bigger on your side of the water.
I’m guessing it’ll be similar to if I started talking about characters from Playschool or Watch With Mother because I can’t imagine they got a lot of exposure on your side. Incidentally… I’m never exactly sure what PBS/Public Access means. Over here all channels were public access in that you plugged in the aerial, tuned in, and watched. Admittedly I grew up with only two channels so maybe that’s where the difference lay.
I can’t blame age but I still can’t see the joke about King Friday VIII…
If it gets a showing over here I’ll probably go and see it because, well… it’s Tom Hanks!
Jill Florio Administrator
Get it? Friday…the 13th?
Does that not mean something on your side of the pond? It’s hysterical, as an adult, to use so *subversive* a name on a kiddie show.
Yeah, I have not heard of your kiddie shows either.
I barely remember using the aerial antenna, but I did have a tiny black and white TV from college into my mid-twenties. I was perfectly happy with it at the time. The services and fidelity we have now are astounding.
Yeah, see it for Tom Hanks (even though he isn’t in it enough) and maybe you can get the sense of warm hugging from the kindness of Mr. Rogers.