One of the most satisfying, emotionally powerful, documentaries I’ve seen in recent years is Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about Fred Rogers and his long-running TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It certainly isn’t a film I expected to be as moved by as I was, but there you go.
As it happens, another Mr. Rogers film was in preparation at roughly the same time, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which I have now seen as well. This is not a documentary, but a fictionalized account of a cynical, hard-bitten writer assigned to write a magazine piece on Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), who interviews him and, in spite of himself, ends up falling under his spell and accepting him as a kind of mentor or kindly uncle figure.
When I step back from this movie and think about it, mostly this is a fine picture. Hanks is quite good as Mr. Rogers, and the film does a good job presenting the fundamental kindness of Rogers as a human being and of his show.
But I have to admit that subjectively I had trouble getting into this movie more than modestly. And it’s no mystery why. I had seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor? fairly recently, and though this is not a bad movie by a long shot, honestly it pales in comparison to that one.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? covers most of the same ground and covers it better, plus it has the advantage that it’s actually true; it doesn’t incorporate these fictitious people and fictitious events.
I wouldn’t steer people away from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s decent. But if you can only see one Mr. Rogers movie I’d urge you to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? over this one, by a significant margin. That’s the one of the two that hit me on a deeper emotional level.
I wanted to talk about one other thing in connection with this film. I happened to watch it with a friend, and he brought up an intriguing question for discussion. I remarked that I admired how Rogers had the ability to see the best in people and to constantly challenge himself to be a positive person and treat others as well as he could. He’s just a nice person, pure and simple, and I am very pro nice.
But my friend wondered if there’s something non-genuine and potentially morally objectionable about that approach to life. If Rogers, say, doesn’t instinctively react wholly positively to someone and yet he is all warm and loving and encouraging toward him anyway, is that a species of phoniness? Isn’t there something deceptive about feeling one thing and manifesting another?
Interestingly, my moral philosophy is pretty extreme when it comes to being frank and genuine, so I’m more bothered than the average person by any disconnect between what a person really thinks and feels versus what they express. I have a really, really low tolerance for phoniness, and a high level of appreciation for people who lack filters and are unconventionally honest and real. So you might expect that my inclination would be to agree that there’s something objectionable about Rogers’s style, about the way he’s so unfailingly positive and nice toward others, given that it’s a safe bet he wasn’t always feeling in such a favorable mood.
But on reflection, rightly or wrongly, I tend to come down on the other side, to still believe that there’s something really cool about Rogers’s attitude. It feels like it’s somehow distinguishable from the kind of phoniness I think of as a moral flaw.
Perhaps what I’d say is that I think how we feel about something is partly under our control, partly a matter of choice; it’s not just some instinctive, automatic thing. The way you react is not just a reflection of how you are, but also—in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way—a reflection of how you (truly, genuinely) want to be.
Let’s say, for instance, that the magazine writer snaps at Rogers and says something accusatory or critical toward him, something you’d have to think is hurtful to at least some degree. If Rogers doesn’t respond with anger, is he being dishonest?
Well, let’s think of it this way: Rogers has a certain moral philosophy, based on his interpretation of Christianity (before he was a TV star he was a minister in real life). To some extent he’s the kind of person—and wants to be even more the kind of person—who has a twofold reaction to something like this.
One, criticisms can potentially be helpful in enabling one to see one’s flaws and to improve, so there’s a reason to be grateful to the writer for saying what he said.
Two, even if the remark were not constructive criticism at all like that but was uttered with malice in an attempt to hurt, this is an indication that the writer is in pain, for why else strike out at someone and try to hurt him unless you yourself are hurting, and in that case a good person will feel empathy in the presence of such pain and will offer understanding rather than retaliate to punish the person by making him feel even worse.
So, in an ongoing effort to train himself to see things from that kind of perspective—to appreciate the ways criticisms can be helpful, and to empathize with a person who tries to hurt others because he himself is in pain—Rogers responds to the remark with gratitude and positivity.
And I don’t think it’s phony. It reflects his actual philosophy—not a philosophy he’s just pretending to believe—and he’s choosing by reacting a certain way to be a certain kind of person. He’s trying to act as consistently as he can with his moral philosophy.
To be clear, I’m not saying his kindliness and positivity is a justified dishonesty. I’m suggesting it’s not dishonest. But I recognize that that’s a close call, and that people with moral philosophies like mine that put a very high value on truth and being real could go either way on the question.
Anyway, modest thumbs up for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is still better.)