Over Christmas break, my sister and I went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood at a local theater, days before its last showing. The film is a semi-biopic about Mr. Rogers, who has recently seen something of a restoration of his legacy as a genuine cultural figure, instead of a “weird old guy who likes puppets” (or worse).
For our part, we grew up watching Mr. Rogers and were already big fans. When I was attending public school for a while (a memorably negative experience), I remember treasuring every Mr. Rogers episode as the highlight of the morning. In fact, because of my fond memories of Mr. Rogers, I didn’t want to see Tom Hanks (or anyone) play him, until I watched an interview clip where Hanks talked about it. It was such a thoughtful interview, I thought I’d give the film a try.
Not Your Typical Biopic
Without giving it all away, the plot follows Lloyd Vogel (inspired by real-life journalist Tom Junod), who in 1998 is assigned to write a magazine article on Mr. Rogers. He doesn’t want to do it, and on top of that, he’s struggling with fatherhood: both with his aging father, who abandoned his family and now wants to reconnect, and with his own newly born son, whom he’s afraid of letting down. Mr. Rogers takes a great interest in Lloyd, and pretty soon their conversations turn into more of an interview with Lloyd than Fred, which makes Lloyd really uncomfortable, even angry. However, it’s this conflict with Mr. Rogers that becomes the motivation for Lloyd to face the music and put his life back together.
My Favorite Movie of 2019?!
Some of you will remember how much I loved Aladdin (a controversial opinion, according to one of my friends who didn’t like it so much!). With that said, I have to say A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood MIGHT be even better.
I don’t want to get too analytical with this review. I just want to emphasize how thought-provoking, relevant, and nuanced this film is. The interactions between the characters are sympathetic but also very raw. The commentary on fatherhood is really powerful and emotional for those who’ve experienced tension in a relationship with a loved one.
More than that, I was struck by how the themes of betrayal, repentance, and forgiveness were handled so brilliantly. There is a scene—which I will verbosely paraphrase since I can’t remember it word-for-word—where Fred tells Lloyd that you have to recognize even the people who have hurt you have shaped who you are and informed your understanding of right and wrong. In other words… you can be bitter and vengeful about a troubled relationship, or you can use it to set yourself on the right path. You can feel hatred, or you can feel gratitude that you learned something. Wow.
Finally, I applaud the scriptwriters for not glorifying Fred Rogers. From everything I’ve heard about him, this film is pretty accurate. He was a private person, a genuinely kind person, and obviously not a perfect person or dad himself. The film alludes to this with great subtlety, neither elevating him to “sainthood” nor inventing sordid backstories/psychology. It’s just a very refreshingly realistic film, without lessening the story—probably because Mr. Rogers, with his combined heroism and humility, makes for a great protagonist.
On a Darker Note…
As the opening credits played, I was shocked to see Tencent Pictures listed as one of the production companies. The parent company, Tencent, is a mammoth Chinese tech company associated with controversies ranging from copycat software to assisting the Chinese government in surveillance and censorship. Not that U.S. companies are flawless by any means, but for a film about a Christian pastor, and with China’s current terrible abuses against religious minorities, this feels like an uncomfortable juxtaposition and left something of a bad taste in my mouth.
I nearly didn’t mention this because, on a certain level, it seems almost irrelevant. However, it’s important to realize there is a commercial element to this film (in other words, this isn’t an indie “labor of love” production).
For the viewer, it comes down to where do you separate art from artist (or in this case, the group profiting off the film). I don’t have a personal one-size-fits-all answer to this question, though I have some rough heuristics for coming to a conclusion on a case-by-case basis. Maybe I’ll share those in a future post.
For now, I’ll just say, I expect we are going to see a lot more of this kind of collaboration in films and other media going forward. It’s not a negative thing on the surface—the bigger the production values, the more people can benefit from Mr. Rogers’s story and Christian values. However, it does raise questions for me about ends justifying means (or not). Short version is… I would have preferred that Tencent didn’t participate in the film.