Forgiveness and reconciliation in Mr. Rogers’ iconic “Neighborhood”

By focusing on how Fred Rogers’ life and example helped and inspired others, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gets to the heart of the man’s lasting appeal.

Tom Hanks stars in a scene from the movie "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." (CNS photo/Sony)

Everyone who grew up in America between 1968 and 2001 was likely touched by the classic children’s TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” starring a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister named Fred Rogers. Rogers was concerned about the impact that television could have on young minds and wanted to create a show that could teach them profound life lessons in a gentle way.

He developed a reputation as a kind of living saint, with his sweet nature spilling over into his off-camera life as countless people shared stories of his incredible kindness to them. But in 1998, when an Esquire magazine reporter named Lloyd Vogel is assigned to write a short tribute to Rogers for a special issue about heroes, the reporter’s skeptical nature leads him to want to prove that the icon has a hidden dark side.

Instead, Vogel finds himself transformed for the better by his time with Rogers, and the resulting article becomes a classic cover story. The new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood recounts the encounters and eventual friendship of Rogers and Vogel (a fictionalized version of actual reporter Tom Junod), while providing heartwarming lessons for all who view it—making it a great holiday film.

The movie opens with the beloved, piano-driven theme song of the TV series, with Tom Hanks playing a pitch-perfect version of Rogers as he comes bounding into the iconic house and sings the song in full. But soon we realize that the film is going to really follow the story of Vogel, as Rogers shows a picture-board to his viewers with photos of such beloved “Neighborhood” regulars as Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin smiling—before focusing on a sad picture of Vogel (Matthew Rhys).

Rogers is actually talking to the movie’s viewers, noting that we all need to learn to forgive ourselves and those who have hurt us. The scene’s tone matches the way Rogers actually imparted lessons to his young viewers, but then the story skips to Vogel getting the assignment to write about Rogers after winning a major writing award and starting a fight with his father (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding.

Vogel is a notoriously hard-nosed investigative reporter, receiving the assignment to write about Rogers because everyone else on the Esquire heroes list wanted to hear from him. He finds that Rogers is eager to meet, and soon finds himself jetting back and forth between his New York City home and the TV show’s base in Pittsburgh as he’s drawn further into the host’s world and mindset.

As he forms an ever-closer bond with Rogers, Vogel is pushing away his own dad, despite the latter’s efforts to make peace both for the wedding fight and for the fact he abandoned his family years ago when his wife was dying painfully from cancer. As Rogers keeps gently pushing Vogel to confront his emotions and make peace in a healthy way, he finds that the man really does have a magically healing effect on people—even as Rogers subtly dodges questions about his own personal sadness.

Focusing on Vogel’s transformation, rather than simply being a straight-up biopic of Rogers, might seem disconcerting at first but it ultimately works wonderfully. And it was wise for writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster to take a different approach to Rogers’ life, considering that a widely-acclaimed documentary on Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, came out just last year.

Director Marielle Heller made a splash on the art-house film scene last year, when her biopic of notorious New York forger Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, earned Oscar nominations for both Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. This is the complete opposite in spirit from that terrific yet sour tale of a woman who was a misanthropic loner and a con artist to boot.

Heller laces the main story of Vogel with interspersed bits from the fictional “Neighborhood” episode in which Rogers is talking about him. She also recreates a few of the classic songs from the kids’ show and beautifully features a couple of powerful sequences in which Vogel is astonished to witness firsthand the effect Rogers has on even large groups of people on the subway or in a restaurant.

Rhys and Cooper pull off remarkable acting feats, making believable transformations from men who could easily be seen as obnoxious jerks into lovable yet realistically troubled humans. Hanks reveals less on the surface, always showing Rogers as gentle and smiling in public, but hiding a deep reservoir of anger that he won’t explain.

Hanks’ ability to bring the lovable icon to life more than 15 years after Rogers’ death from stomach cancer in 2003 is a gift. So is the film’s straightforward portrayal of Rogers’ faith, showing him as a true man of God who prayed each night on his knees, softly calling out the names of people like Vogel he cared about deeply.

With its positive message of familial reconciliation, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautiful way to spend the holiday season at the movies.


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About Carl Kozlowski 8 Articles
Carl Kozlowski is a Los Angeles-based, Catholic writer and comedian who wrote the "Cinemazlowski" movie-review column for EWTN's Catholic News Agency for four years and currently writes about film for the LA Archdiocesan magazine Angelus News. He is a Rotten Tomatoes film critic and was arts editor for Pasadena Weekly for a decade. He co-owns and co-runs Catholic Laughs, which brings clean, clever standup comedy with a Catholic twist to Catholic parishes and other venues nationwide. He's also the producer and a cohost of the weekly talk show "Man Up", which is like a funny, conservative "The View" for guys.

10 Comments

  1. Every one of us has a dark side, and with a famous person a ‘writer’ who wants to ‘make his bones’ is going to look for that and expose it. Some ‘writers’ make a career out of doing that, which is sad but true.

    I used to like Tom Hanks until he appeared in the movie ‘The DaVinci Code’, the basic theme of which is that Catholicism is a fraud because the resurrection did not actually occur. And since then he has appeared in 2 more movies based on books written by the guy who wrote The DaVinci Code, whose name I have, thankfully, forgotten.

    (Not that anyone asked me but) – While I’m at it – I’m going to skip the ‘Midway’ movie, because the thought of Woody Harrelson playing the part of Admiral Chester Nimitz just rubs me the wrong way.

    • Terry McManus – you are like me- the Irish would call us ‘good haters’. I didn’t know that Tom Hanks was in the Da Vinci Code and am very disappointed to find that out. I liked him as an actor but withdraw that opinion now. As for the Da Vinci Code, our local bookshop promoted it heavily when it came out, (and I stupidly bought a copy, thinking it was about Da Vinci). I never went into the bookshop again, after I read the book, as I was so angry that they had promoted such a defamatory and dishonest piece of work. I am highly suspicious about the promotion and publication of that book and the identity of its author. I have enough familiarity with Soviet methods of disinformation to look at the timing of the barrage of slanderous books and theories that emerged with suspicious regularity to see the Da Vinci Code as another step in a measured (not sporadic) attack on the Catholic Church. The other arm of the attack is that sustained deluge of false information put about by so-called ‘scholars’ about Pope Pius XII and the negation of the heroism of the Catholic Church in World War II.

      • Thanks for your reply. I’m Irish and I’m a good drunk, but not a hater.

        I bought the book when it was popular and it took me until halfway through to understand what they were getting at. I finished the book nevertheless and felt so bad that I had to read nothing but P. G. Wodehouse for 2 weeks to wash the foul taste of that book out of my head. (mild sarc.)

        I remain, though, profoundly disappointed in Tom Hanks.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie, but like most of us in the baby-boomer generation i saw many episodes of Mr Rogers. In addition to the theme of forgiveness, another important theme of the show was to gently insist and remind children (and their parents?) to distinguish between fantasy and reality—a lesson made in every show with the train moving in and out of The Land of Make-Believe. Failure to do so leads to many tragedies; transgenderism comes to mind. It was a lesson, alas, that was lost on many of his fans.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful review, Mr Kozlowski. My wife and I saw the film and loved it. Wasn’t easy living up to Mr. Rogers public reputation but Fred Rogers did just that. Human darkness couldn’t defeat him. God bless him.

  4. Hmm, I think people forget he is an actor. Based on the comments I’m assuming many are of the age when he first came into television, and thusly should all have strong working ethics. Just because Mr Hanks played roles that contradict each other doesn’t make him a bad or a bad actor. He’s also played many other roles, including a Hitman for the mob in Road to Perdition. His passion for becoming and portraying different characters is his drive, not his personal beliefs. This was a well written article and these some of these comments are laughable.

    • I am well aware of the fact that he is an actor. I saw ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ among others.

      The theme of the book and the movie is that the resurrection did not occur, so Catholicism is a fraud, because it is based on something that did not occur – surely Mr. Hanks knew this when he made this movie. That being said, it follows that he knew exactly what he was doing and chose to do it, which is his right, and he made 2 more movies based on characters created in the original book. It is MY right to state that I am disappointed by what he has done, and I have not seen any of his films since then.

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