There was no church choir. No baptismal font. No pulpit. But I just heard one of the very best sermons of my life.
For two poignant hours on Black Friday I sat in a Regal theater auditorium next to Lisa and watched Tom Hanks in a sweater talking gently to kids about life’s ups and downs and why things don’t always work like we want them to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a plot built around a hard-boiled Esquire reporter, Lloyd Vogel. Now there’s a guy who needs a sermon preached at him. During a boozy diatribe, his alcoholic dad (a brilliant cameo by Chris Cooper) pops him in the nose and his face is purple with bruises. Now he’s being coerced into an unwanted puff-piece assignment. He has to do a 400-word quickie story about the legendary PBS milquetoast TV host, Mr. Rogers.
I honestly cannot find the words to describe how it all goes except to warn you that this quiet, no-explosions-no-sex-no-F-bombs movie will change your life if you allow it. Because Fred Rogers sits down with Vogel and is the exact same character as when the director hollers “Action!” Or when he slips his right hand into a puppet named Daniel Striped Tiger and gives his juvenile audience whimsical doses of encouragement. Every script in the Rogers neighborhood is really just two words long: BE KIND. And when he’s off-set, or riding on the subway with a bunch of hardened New Yorkers – who spot their childhood hero and begin singing the theme song – or when he leans closer to Vogel and says in a voice that reveals genuine sympathy, “Oh dear, what happened to your face?” you’re awestruck with this: This guy actually does mean it.
The pivotal moment happens early on. This cynical writer fully expect the Hanks character to walk off the set, drop his syrupy-sweet persona, and – I don’t know – light a cigarette and bark at his stage hands about where the hell’s my makeup lady or bring me a bagel. For sure, when he sits down with a hack writer from a New York magazine, he’s going to drop the façade and just be himself. Grumble about ratings and how sick he is of that effing red sweater.
But no. Mr. Rogers is Mr. Rogers. It’s not an act and not a script and not a carefully contrived image. He peers into every visitor’s face and says with genuine warmth: “How ARE you? What is wrong? I would love to take your picture and then keep it and remember your name and know who your wife is and your little baby boy.”
There are a couple of cinema moments where Lloyd Vogel almost loses it. “Come on! I’m here on assignment! Drop the act, Rogers, and gimme my 400 words so I can get back to Amtrak and my rotten New York life.” But there’s a slowly developing look of wonder and awe when he realizes: “Holy cow, all this is real. This Presbyterian minister-turned-God’s ambassador to the children of the world honestly believes kindness can redeem our busted planet.”
This story is a powerful paean to the necessity of forgiveness. And I was also struck with how Fred Rogers, who is on a relentless pace to produce these PBS shows for 33 years . . . still has time to visit Lloyd and his dad in the hospital and minister to them. To pause and take pictures with every new friend. There’s an amazing scene near the close where Mr. Rogers is kneeling by his bed and simply going through his prayer list. For this particular bedtime it’s just ten words long. “Please bless Lloyd. Please bless Andrea. Please bless Baby Gavin.” As I exited the theater, that moment of generosity took me back to a signature line penned by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “The New Men.” Gracious, stalwart people here and there dot this planet and, with lowered voices and the magnetic power of their love, heal our many wounds. Lewis writes: “They usually seem to have a lot of time. You will wonder where it comes from.”
This inspirational film may not impact your life at all and your reaction might be to roll your eyes. And if that happens, I won’t question your heart or your life experiences. All I can say is this: my eyes were rimmed with tears nearly the entire two hours.