Theme: Changing a Broken World with Words
In his latest film Tom Hanks, America’s favorite actor, takes on the role of America’s most beloved friend and neighbor, Mister Rogers. Different from the 2018 Documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Sony/Tri-Star’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the true story of Fred Rogers’ encounter with one man. Lloyd Vogler (loosely based on Tom Junod) is a journalist for Esquire magazine assigned to write a four hundred word profile on the popular children’s hero. What he produces by movie’s end is a ten thousand word, award-winning article on how his life was changed by Mister Rogers.
The movie opens the way every episode (1968-2001) of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood opened: with a song, a sweater, and a shoe change. The theme of the show is introduced by a prop, in this case a picture board. One door on the board is opened and there is a picture of a man with a wounded nose. Mister Rogers introduces the hurt man as Lloyd Vogler and asks the serious question, “Do you know what it means to forgive?” He summarizes the plot of the entire movie by explaining to the audience forgiveness is a decision one makes to be released from anger, and the hardest person to forgive is someone you love. This is the story of how one man got hurt, became angry and hurt others, until he eventually learned with the help of a friend, how to give and receive forgiveness.
After the introduction, the movie flashes back to how Lloyd received the wound on his nose. Attending his sister Lorraine’s wedding in New Jersey, his anger is ignited by a comment his estranged father makes about his deceased mother. Unable to control himself, Lloyd strikes his father who counters with the punch to the nose, ruining the reception and leaving both men and family even more fractured.
Eventually the reason for the animosity Lloyd has for his father is revealed. Jerry abandoned his wife, Lila, leaving her when she was suffering from cancer for another woman. Lloyd was left to walk with his mother through her painful death. The anger he indulged as a youth has made him an angry man. As the philosopher Dallas Willard writes, “Anger embraced is accordingly inherently disintegrative of human personality and life. It does not have to be specifically acted out to poison the world.”¹ The poison in Vogler has been seeping out for years in his writing and relationships, clearly made evident when his boss informs him Mister Rogers is the only person willing to be interviewed by him.
After having a phone conversation unlike any other he’s ever had with an interviewee, Vogler travels to Pittsburgh’s WQED studio for an on set encounter. He starts out asking questions to Rogers but before long finds himself being the one interviewed and, more alarmingly, confessing how he got the wound in a fight with his father.
Fred invites Lloyd to stay around the neighborhood and watch the filming he is about to resume. And not surprisingly he hears the song, “What do you do with the mad you feel?” Stirred by all he has experienced, he returns to New York and dives into watching old reruns of interviews of Mister Rogers wondering how did he become the man he is?
Just as Lloyd Vogler is intrigued by Mister Rogers, Fred being the person he is (someone who likes everybody but loves those who don’t really care for humanity), is genuinely interested in the wounded journalist and invites him to come see him in New York.
There he meets Joanne Rogers for the first time and flippantly throws her an interview question . . . how is it, living with a saint?” She lets him know in no uncertain terms her disdain for the question, for the word saint implies Fred’s way of being is unattainable. The truth is, she informs him, there are practices Fred does every day which are transformative and make him the person he is: reading scripture, praying for people by name, swimming laps, and writing letters.
This list may seem benign, almost as gracious and harmless as the man who practices them, when in fact they are spiritual disciplines with great power.
The Spiritual Disciplines are the means of God’s grace for bringing about genuine personality formation characterized through and through by love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)²
The ordained Presbyterian Pastor Fred Rogers never has to mention his faith because through years of submitting himself to spiritual disciplines he has become the embodiment of Christian virtue and Christ likeness. No wonder Lloyd Vogler thinks of him as a saint.
Vogler returns to his home to find Jerry and his girlfriend Dorothy having pizza with his wife Andrea. Furious, Lloyd tells him to leave and in the outbreak of another argument his father has a heart attack and falls to the floor. The journalist who has run his entire life from his most frightening experience, a hospital with a dying parent, finds himself back in the midst of his deepest wound and worst nightmare. Unable to bear it, he runs, leaving his wife and infant son and flees to his friend in Pittsburgh, only to find himself stumbling into an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood dealing with . . . hospitals.
Collapsing on the set he has a dream of his mother Lila, who lovingly tells him not to hold on to his anger . . . she doesn’t need it.
Lloyd awakens to find the Rogers have taken him into their home. Considering the need for sustenance, Fred invites his new friend to a restaurant and in a very public place has the most intimate moment in the movie. He tells Lloyd he doesn’t see him as a broken man but rather a man of conviction, a person who knows right from wrong and his father Jerry helped him become who he is. How can this be?
He asks Lloyd to join him in a minute of silence and to “listen for all the people who loved us into being”. Then Fred turns from looking at Lloyd to staring at the camera and thus to the viewing audience, making eye contact as he has always tried to make with the children who watch his show. In that moment, the restaurant patrons go silent, the theater goes silent, and “the searcher of hearts” (Romans 8:27) intercedes for all those who listen and begin to see that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose ( Romans 8:28).
The Way Home
In every Hero Journey, the hero leaves his ordinary world (Esquire Magazine), enters the special world (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), makes a descent with the help of a mentor (Mister Rogers) and comes into an ordeal (death of a parent), where he is transformed. He dies to his old way of life (anger and unforgiveness) and is raised to a new life by way of confession and repentance. This is the only way home.
Lloyd has experienced the kindness, goodness and sweetness of God through Fred Rogers and it brings him to a true and deep repentance (Romans 2:4). He returns to his wife, son, father, Dorothy, sister and her husband and is reconciled to all. The death of Jerry does not leave him in wounded anger but rather in restored peace. The sword he has wielded skillfully to revile others and defend himself is now turned into an instrument to “Change the broken world with words”.
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, page 149
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, page xiii