Madeleine L’Engle was a complicated human.

I know we’re here to talk about the Mr. Rogers movie, but bear with me: I’ll get to that.

When Disney’s so-so film adaptation of L’Engle’s beloved novel A Wrinkle in Time came out a couple of years ago, I found myself cringing through the hype, as adoring testimonies about the author’s books and influence rolled in, wave upon wave. I’ve read so much of her work, and I am close to so many people who knew her well. My understanding of her character and influence tell me that she deserves to be admired and celebrated, but also that we must wrestle with the complexities, the rough edges, and the increasingly irascible nature of her personality as she grew older. When our heroes pass, it’s important that we honor them — but it’s also important that we avoid romanticizing the reality, reducing our portraits to sentimentality.

Having said that, I must admit that I quote Madeleine L’Engle’s wisdom as much or more than anybody’s. Not a week goes by that I don’t quote — aloud or in writing — the wisdom of her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. And many of the lines that mean most to me have something to say about misconceptions related to age. Advising writers who are wrestling with complex concepts, L’Engle writes, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

L’Engle knew that it’s a sin to talk down to children. She knew that children have a capacity for understanding some things better than adults do. And adults, attending to words that have been crafted for children, just might be surprised by insights they would otherwise have brushed off.

And I thought about that a lot as I watched director Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

Here’s a film that takes a complicated story about adults in conflict and frames it as if it’s the focus of an episode of children’s television. No, I don’t mean the movie’s styled like the hyperactive, seizure-inducing children’s entertainment of today, but rather it’s played in the mode of the patient, modest, and deeply nourishing educational television provided by Fred Rogers from 1968 through 2001.

Journalist Lloyd Vogler (Matthew Rhys) is driven to cut the crap and serve up the hard and dispiriting truth. He’s about to meet his toughest subject.

Let’s be more specific:

The movie introduces Lloyd Vogler (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire magazine, who is happily married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson)’ unhappily clashing with his estranged father (Chris Cooper); intolerant of his father’s girlfriend (Wendy Makkena); and trying to make his peace with his own new role as a father. Their family tensions are just mundane enough (and just realistic enough, actually) to make for forgettable drama — but what makes them interesting is how their story is introduced by, and eventually visited by, a sort of guardian angel who just might bring this warring tribe around into an affirmation that, yes indeed, it is a wonderful life.

That soft-spoken savior, who earned his wings a long time ago, and whose guardian-angel status was celebrated just last year in the extraordinarily moving documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is, of course, Mr. Rogers — the educator, psychologist, pastor, and television host we associate with bringing peace, truth, and love to small children.

This movie isn’t just about Fred Rogers: It’s framed as if it’s an episode of his TV show. It shouldn’t work. It works like a charm.

What A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood bravely asserts is that Fred Rogers’ wisdom is just as applicable for grownups now as it has ever been for children. Lloyd, initially insulted by the assignment to apply his sophisticated talents to writing a “puff piece” on Mr. Rogers, ends up seeking escape in his assignment, escape from the crises awaiting him at home, as his living nightmare of a father hovers outside his apartment building and asking “Can we talk?”, and as his wife becomes increasingly exasperated with Lloyd’s unwillingness to listen, to offer second chances, to consider reconciliation.

And so, little by little, as Lloyd’s interviews with Fred Rogers progress, he careens between incredulity at Rogers’ childlike preoccupation with puppets, frustration with Rogers’ evasion of challenges to his authenticity, and bewilderment with Rogers’ ability to turn the interview around and slip through gaps in the wall of Lloyd’s cynicism.

Fred Rogers, confronted with a difficult interview question, defers to Daniel Tiger. (Image from the trailer.)

Everything about this premise would incline me to believe that Heller’s movie would seem condescending to its adult audience. I was braced for a barrage of oversimplifications meant to resolve tensions in a a complicated reality. and for platitudes likely to inspire more cynicism than healing.

But something kept me hopeful. I’d seen Heller’s last film — Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the messy and difficult portrait of author and fraud artist Lee Israel. And I couldn’t imagine that this director would settle for something sentimental and sticky.

She hasn’t.

In fact, Heller makes things unexpectedly exciting in that she isn’t content to provide a mere imitation of Fred Rogers’ tenderness, creativity, and imagination.

I could take time here to join the 99.9% of working film critics to sing Tom Hanks’s praises: his performance is a thing of tenderness, precision, and beauty. Specifically, I would point to what Steven Greydnaus has written at The National Catholic Register:

Why does the performance feel right? Hanks commits utterly to Rogers’ sincerity, soft-spokenness and gentleness of spirit — but it’s not only his acting choices. It’s also who he is.

Another actor might look more like Rogers or nail the technical details more precisely, but no one else in Hollywood has the store of goodwill and trust to connect emotionally with viewers as Rogers. I believe in Mr. Rogers as I believe in few human beings, but, while he isn’t on that rarefied level, I believe in Tom Hanks, too. And so do most of you.

But why dwell on what’s obvious? We know Hanks will be awesome in the role.

Marielle Heller, on the other hand, needs a bright spotlight. So few women have opportunities to direct pop culture events as significant as this one. And Heller isn’t content just to give the people what they want: She, working with a brave script from Transparent and Maleficent screenwriters Micah Fitzerman and Noah Harpster, takes real risks from the very opening scene. She asks us to engage in some imagination games (just as Rogers would have wanted it!). She asks audiences to reckon with the public prominence of Rogers’ Christian faith and his dedication to prayer (which are portrayed here as clearly as they have been in any Martin Luther King biopic). Then, later, she asks us to lean into just how strange this guy was.

Tom Hanks lives up to his reputation in what may be the most important role of his career. (Image from the trailer for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.)

And in a scene right at the heart of the movie, she takes a risk bigger than any I’ve seen at the movies this year. I won’t spoil it for you, but I’ll say this: the gamble plays off — big time. I watched the film at home via screener link, and I can’t wait to experience it again in a crowded theater just to see how that meditative minute plays for an audience.

So I was right to feel some strange confidence that Heller might be the right filmmaker for the job. And, what’s more, I didn’t feel like doubting the drama about the journalist and the children’s entertainer, as the whole affair is loosely based on — or, better, inspired by — the experiences of journalist Tom Junod, whose testimonies about his relationship with Rogers are already legendary.

That doesn’t mean I think the whole endeavor is an unqualified success. There are a few moments when the movie loses its careful balance:

First, Heller can’t quite resist the temptation to drop Tom Hanks into actual historic footage of Rogers on various television shows, and the Forrest Gump-ishness of things becomes impossible to ignore. They should have known better.

Second, there’s a dream sequence that made me wonder if the whimsical filmmaker Michel Gondry had seized the controls. I love the land of make-believe, but this movie asks us to accept some wildly dissonant modes. This stretch of the film is the only one that had me wincing at its contrivance—at least on this first viewing.

After that awkward stumble, the film regains its footing for a while — and then, in the final act, when Lessons are Learned, it veers dangerously close to the edge of the Abyss of Sentimentality.

Lloyd, his wife Andrea, and their baby boy in a rare moment of trouble-free family bliss. (Image from the trailer for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.)

But don’t worry — it pulls back in time. and the whole journey is worth it for a masterful denouement that brings all of Fred’s threads — the actor, the counselor, the director, the musician, the public, the private, the enigma, the tenderness, and, yes, the anger — together for a final flourish.

I’m not quite ready to call the movie a Christmas Miracle. But it’s certainly appropriate to call it a great Thanksgiving movie — one for families to share during a season when they’re bringing all their baggage to holiday dinner tables. While Morgan Neville’s documentary took me to pieces and left me quaking with gratitude for Rogers’ ministry, here my feelings of thankfulness are for Heller, Junod, Fitzerman, and Harpster — that they were able to save us from what seemed inevitable: an intolerably hagiographic portrait. Their work faces head-on the discomforting questions we must reckon with as we try to make sense of so singular and complicated a celebrity.

I saw A Beautiful Day on the very same afternoon that I saw Martin Scorsese’s I Heard You Paint Houses. After my immersion in Scorsese’s testimony about how gangsters have shaped American politics over many decades, I was braced for a Mr. Rogers movie to fall flat, to feel flimsy and squishy and crowdpleasing. Now, I can’t help but wonder if, after watching 3 1/2 hours of mob madness, two hours of Fred Rogers’ weaponized kindness didn’t seem even more necessary.

Writing about her enduring affection for children’s stories, Madeleine L’Engle insisted that her age was not an isolated chronological statistic, but only the most recent addition of a year to her life: “I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five and . . . and . . . and . . .” A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is founded on this conviction: that a grown man, no matter how cynical, is just the latest revision of a project that began as a child, and that there still is, somewhere within the accretion of years of defensiveness and dismissals, the same vulnerable and needy human being who has always been waiting for love to take root, to grow, and to break apart the despairing cynic’s carefully cultivated exoskeleton.

The power of that love works on Lloyd. And I suspect it will work like a sledgehammer on all but the hardest hearts in the audience.

As one of the millions whose childhoods were shaped, in large part, by Rogers’ kindness and childlike imagination, I can tell you that it certainly worked on me. For I’m a cynical forty-something journalist at times. But I am also twenty-one, and twelve… and a wide-eyed four-year-old, leaning in toward the TV screen, listening to the Gospel of Daniel Tiger.

 


NOTE:

If it had been made back in the heyday of progressive Christian film criticism — that being the early- to mid-2000s, when writers were reclaiming the ideals of criticism from a Culture of Fear (that is, from the Focus-on-the-Family-variety morality police) and focusing instead on the Art of Cinema — I suspect that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would have started fires. What a debate we would have had.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it stirs up debate among Christians today.

On the one hand, Christian congregations will love it the way they loved Chariots of Fire. They get to see a Christian hero modeling Christian humility, quoting and cherishing the Christian Scriptures, and kneeling at his bedside to pray for people. They’ll claim him as a sort of standard-bearer: Everybody loves him, but he plays for our team!

On the other hand, it shows Rogers engaging the world of the arts, crossing borders, and loving everyone instead of endorsing a cultural separatism. His example stands in stark contrast to what much of evangelical America is endorsing these days. (In fact, the FOX News “Fox & Friends” morning program ran a story in which they called Rogers an “evil, evil man” for assuring children that they are all special.) Thus, it would be easy to hold Rogers up as a poster boy for all forms of progressive politics.

But I don’t want to get drawn into this tempting tempest of partisanship. I’ll just say this: Rogers has one thing very much in common with Jesus — people of all political stripes want to exploit his goodness in ways that endorse their own views. And there he is in the middle: an enigma, asking only that we love one another, and love everyone with equal devotion.

To seize this film and wave it as a flag of partisanship — religious or political — would be a terrible, terrible way to read the film.

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