Monday, April 20, 2020

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Having sat on my Amazon streaming "Watch List" for over a month, last night my wife and I finally watched the Tom Hanks' movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. We chose the movie because we felt it would deliver a "feel good" experience, and certainly our lives in the time of COVID-19 can use a little respite from the tension. I was surprised, though, at just how good the movie is, just how good the script, the acting, and the direction of the human moments in the film resonated with me.

The IMDb describes the storyline of the movie as being based on the real-life relationship between Fred Rogers and a journalist.
Two-time Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. After a jaded magazine writer (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America's most beloved neighbor.
In a review of the movie, reviewer Brian Tallerico makes two important points about the film. One is that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not just a straight-up documentary of Fred Rogers: "However, this is not a biopic of the man who helped raise millions of Americans. In fact, Rogers is a supporting character, which is in itself a daring way to tell this story. This is more a movie about how Rogers’ beliefs about acceptance and forgiveness could help anyone, no matter their age." His other observation is that the movie is a feel-good experience, but that the movie doesn't lapse into saccharine-sweet platitudes. "Clearly, 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' is what could be called 'a message movie.' It’s designed to make you call your estranged parent when it’s over, and pull on those emotional heartstrings, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. It’s on the right side of that line that divides things that are genuinely sweet and calculated in their manipulations. " Tallerico's observations are accurate. The movie is dramatic look at the Rogers/Vogel relationship, and the cinematic exploration of that relationship inspires one to examine one's own relationships and life goals.

So I've been thinking about the movie--and, yes, my life in the time of this pandemic--and as sometimes happens with me, I am serendipitously reminded of two other American icons, Henry David Thoreau and E.E. Cummings.
  • Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." (Chapter 2, Walden)
  • Cummings: "since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you". 
First, I did some research on Fred Rogers' life, mostly to find out if the urban legend that he was a Special Forces soldier prior to his work with children and television. The answer is that he was not. He registered for the military draft but was found physically unqualified later. He graduated from college with a degree in music composition and also later graduated from divinity school and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, being asked by the church to continue his work with television and children. Later in life he became a vegetarian, saying that he didn't want to eat anything that had a mother, a line used in the movie.
I had thought that if Rogers had been a Special Forces soldier, then it would perfectly explain his intense focus and commitment seen in the movie. It would provide an inner motivation for him to live a nurturing, supporting life. Research ousted that convenient motivation, though. He was shy and overweight in his youth, though, so he did have his struggles with social interaction. The simple truth is that Rogers was an individual with a strong inner life and with a desire to make the world a better place. Puppets, music, and a deliberate lifestyle were aspects of his life that helped him be the man the world came to know and admire.

I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau's time at Walden Pond, when he simplified his life in order to pare his existence down to the essentials "to life deliberately." In the movie and in my research of Rogers' life, there was a sense that he had a goal in life for himself, a sort of spiritual benchmark that he held himself to, developing activities to help him refine and improve himself, as Thoreau chose time alone at Walden Pond. Thoreau built a cabin; Rogers built a routine and style of behavior and a children's educational television program. The movie, especially in its one-on-one scenes between the Rogers and Vogel characters, captures the inner intensity of the man. 

E.E. Cummings' poem was conjured by the quiet intensity of the Fred Rogers character that actor Tom Hanks captured so well. (By the way, research mentioned that Hanks was cousins with Rogers, six times removed.) Hanks captures the intensely inner life that was central to who Rogers was, an inner life that included insecurities and anger along with great personal strength and integrity. I am reminded of an acetylene cutting torch, which once lit can be focused down to an intensely hot, defined cutting flame. Rogers' passion was intensely focused, highly effective, and yet also at times eccentric because of that intensity.

The movie's focus on the journalist's life with Rogers as a secondary character was brilliant. Rogers' life was one of service, and how better to portray that than have his character in a supporting role? My wife and I watched the movie twice, two nights in a row. In this time of pandemic, it was truly uplifting and inspiring to watch a movie about rebirth, about spiritual strength and goodness. Rogers' wife tells the journalist at one point in the movie that her husband isn't a saint, that he had to work hard to be who he was. But it's good work, and "Mercy!" (as Rogers exclaims in the movie), how important it is for us to work at being good so that we can do good work in our lives. 

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