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Feel-good movies come in two kinds. One kind simply offers fun escapism. It features car chases, characters with superpowers, and declarations of love in the rain. The purpose is to let you forget your problems for a couple of hours.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the other kind of feel-good movie.
The new film, starring Tom Hanks, doesn’t make us feel good by taking us away from the difficulties of the world. Instead, it takes us into the heart of what often causes anxiety, depression, and anger, especially as we enter the holiday season: difficult family relationships. Then, it inspires with a story that tells us it’s possible to overcome even our oldest, most entrenched conflicts.
Lloyd Vogel is an award-winning journalist who confuses being a hard-hitting reporter for being a jerk. His relationship with his father is so strained, they can hardly be in the same room without coming to blows. As for his career, most public figures refuse to speak to him after reading the hit jobs he’s done on others. No surprise, then, that both Lloyd and his wife think he’s a strange choice to profile America’s most beloved children’s television host. “Please don’t ruin my childhood,” Lloyd’s wife begs before he heads off for his first meeting with Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers surprises Lloyd by being exactly what anyone who’s ever watched his children’s show expects. Yet while his personality is marked by gentleness, he shows no signs that Lloyd’s probing questions make him nervous. In fact, he’s happy to open wide his life to him. If, that is, Lloyd will let Fred into his life as well.
Great as Tom Hanks is as Fred Rogers—and he is great—it is Matthew Rhys (The Americans) who steals the show.
As Lloyd, he’s cynical and suspicious. He thinks his complex, adult problems are beyond the lessons Fred teaches to children, such as trying to like each other just the way we are. In short, Lloyd is like most of us, and he’s looking for evidence that Fred Rogers is a phony baloney. Except, the more Lloyd gets to know Fred, the more he discovers Fred’s self-sacrificial love and kindness aren’t a put-on.
“The way he led his life, I believe Dad tried to follow the example of Christ,” James Rogers said of his father in a recent documentary. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood likewise makes it clear that Fred’s lessons were based on his Biblical beliefs. He tells Lloyd the source of his almost supernatural calm isn’t that he’s innately so much better than everyone else and harbors no ugly thoughts or feelings. Rather, it’s the result of his spiritual disciplines. These include daily Scripture reading, praying for lists of people by name, and striving to treat others as more important than himself.
The same unselfish interest Fred takes in overlooked children, he takes in Lloyd. And Lloyd, who sees himself as hopelessly broken, begins to find hope. His bitterness and anger don’t magically disappear, but he’s able to take the first steps toward forgiveness, a softened heart, and change.
The real Lloyd Vogel is an Esquire writer named Tom Junod. In a 1998 cover story, he recounted how Rogers asked the audience members at the Emmy Awards to take 10 seconds to reflect silently on those who’d shown them love. The result: “The jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier.”
When Junod met Rogers, he discovered it takes a heavenly kind of strength to face a cynical world with so much meekness. That’s what should happen when the lost encounter people who are modeling the love of their Savior. Even when they don’t ultimately come to the faith, our grace becomes their grace.