Last Sunday I went and watched a film about goodness and kindness and compassion with a guaranteed happy ending. The film was about a man who practised all these qualities while he was alive, and it featured Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, the legendary television personality who was creator, showrunner and host of Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001 to the delight of four generations of American pre-schoolers.
So, a good man in real life has played another good man in real life, for that is what the film is about – how miraculous it is when what you see on the screen, about a gently and quietly heroic man, full of empathy and grace, is exactly like that in real life too. And who discovered this for the world? A journalist, of course!
I understand that films about good men seldom make engaging watching, but happy, optimistic films are very thin on the ground, as are happy, optimistic books and happy, optimistic news. So I went to catch one of the few shows available. I ended up at a “luxury viewing. You know — airplane seat with bags more leg room and its own settings panel, your own impeccably packaged blanket, a proper little armrest table for food, space for water bottle and distance from an unfamiliar neighbour.
Already, when buying my ticket, I had noticed that the film did not feature on any standee or flex or even on one of their LED screens. Then I checked for seating and found that, with myself included, there would be around 21 people in a 90 seater theatre. I positioned myself carefully, with everyone behind me and empty seats before me, and felt on top of the world. I shouldn’t have, for it merely meant that people have little use for goodness, kindness, empathy and grace, preferring the graceless rollercoaster ride of high sensation that a commercial film usually gives.
So here’s another thing about the film — director Marielle Heller actually said about Rogers, “(he) doesn't have the dynamic nature you need for a protagonist for a movie. He is the antagonist, who comes into someone's life and flips it upside down through his philosophy and the way he lived his life.” The protagonist is actually the journalist, named Lloyd Vogel in the film. And boy, did his flip come from where he least expected it!
Naturally I have been reading up on Fred Rogers, because that is what you do when your love for reading is complemented by every platform you can think of, films, documentaries, podcasts, archival stuff. And it is all uniformly laudatory and even so, I still find him interesting.
Here was a man who grew up in an affluent family with enough strong emotional, social and spiritual support to ensure he could live in a comfortable bubble, if he chose. But he did not choose.
This man, who grew up and became a Presbyterian minister, looked around at the world and saw what he could do to make it better for its littlest ones. Through almost four decades, he showed up at the studio in Pittsburg to make a show for pre-schoolers, where he talked to them in his gentlest, most reassuring, happy, confiding voice.
He talked about friends, neighbours, the delight of routine, the great outside with all its familiar faces. He used puppets, his own World of Make-Believe, models, music and song. And he talked about the big and frightening things, the sad things, like loss, divorce, even death. Children need to be helped in making sense of it all, he declared, and he did. Best of all, he did it simply, quietly, steadily. And inside and outside, on-set and off, he was the same! No wonder that in 2002, a year before he died, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Among the many charming things I discovered about Mr. Rogers was that he wrote stuff down. This is a list of the things he wanted to encourage among those who admired him. “Self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence.”
If only there was some way for us all to work this magic in our immediate neighbourhoods, what an Utopia we would establish. For then, each and every ordinary one of us would be a hero.
Former journalist, now media educator, still curious about everything.