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A Day in the Neighborhood

December 15, 2019 (426 words)

It seems as if the things I most enjoy in life are all dying a slow death and on their way out. Like newspapers, magazines, and going to the movies. But I will continue to frequent all three for as long as they’re still around.

Desperate for something to see last night that wasn’t just another noisy entry in a long-running action franchise, I wandered into the new movie about Fred Rogers (1928-2003), a puppeteer and ordained Presbyterian minister who was the creator and host of the preschool television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001.

His TV show was after my time as a child, so going in I didn’t have much of an opinion about the man or his work. Beyond thinking of him as a friendly presence who made a point not to talk down to kids.

While the clever quips of action heroes in pretend peril can be entertaining in a frothy, forgettable way, watching flawed men and women attempt to deal with real-life emotions is much more my cup of tea. And this movie has all that in spades.

The script was inspired by the 1998 article “Can You Say…Hero?” written by Tom Junod (b.1958) and published in Esquire magazine. In the film the journalist is named Lloyd Vogel, and he is portrayed as a talented writer with a chip on his shoulder.

We learn he has a few unresolved issues with a certain member of his immediate family. (This is something many of us can relate to, even if the immediate family member in question tends to vary from one situation to the next.)

Assigned to do a short, 400-word puff piece on Fred Rogers for a series about heroes, our cynical journalist is determined to poke holes in the TV host’s nice-guy persona. What ensues is a well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed story of a gentle 70 year-old man from Pittsburgh who helps untangle certain emotional knots for an award-winning 40 year-old New York City journalist.

This one caught me completely by surprise. My compliments go to everyone who had a hand in bringing this unusual story to the screen. It will move you tears, assuming you still have a pulse and haven’t been completely numbed by over-exposure to long-running action franchises.
At one point in the film Mr. Rogers explains his mission as trying to show children a healthy way to deal with their emotions. Of course this is something every single one of us needs help with, all through our lives, isn’t it?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
December 15, 2019

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