“The most important thing to me right now is talking to Lloyd Vogel.”
That particular line may not have much significance to you now, but it’s a crucial part of an introductory phone call between a jaded journalist and Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) in the new film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (rated PG). The movie, based on a true story, explores the friendship between these two men.
Early on, we’re introduced to Esquire Magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, who plays a version of real-life journalist Tom Junod). He’s married and has a newborn son. He also has issues with his dad. In fact, early on in the movie he gets into a fist fight with his father that ends in a bruised and bloodied face. When we catch up with Vogel post-fight, he’s at work getting his next assignment, which is to write, as he puts it, a 400-word “puff piece” on Mr. Rogers, the TV and cultural hero of the beloved children’s show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” For a serious writer, this assignment is an insult, but he agrees to do it.
As the film progresses, we witness several interactions between Vogel and Rogers. With his cynical outlook, Vogel has a difficult time believing Rogers could truly be anything like the earnest, soft-spoken character he plays on the show. His interviews with Rogers don’t go as planned, as Rogers seems less interested in talking about himself and more interested in learning who Vogel is. Who he really is.
Truly seeing the worth of someone
As Mr. Rogers intimates early in the movie, each human life is precious. To Rogers, that doesn’t seem to simply be a trite notion. When Vogel first walks onto the set of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers is kneeling down at eye level with an unruly young boy who is violently swinging around a plastic sword. After Rogers spends a bit of time with him, the boy stops swinging the sword, lets down his defenses, and moves in to hug Rogers. Although the show’s crew is annoyed at getting off schedule because of having to wait on Rogers’ interaction with the boy, they, and Vogel, witness the change in the boy and the gentle, calming presence Rogers has on the child.
In interviews with Vogel, Rogers explains the whole purpose of the show, which is to help give children positive ways to deal with their feelings. Throughout the film we see that Rogers is also helping a cynical journalist navigate his feelings (particularly those of anger) toward his father. “Forgiveness,” Rogers explains in an episode taping, “is releasing a person from your angry feelings.”
When Jesus taught on forgiveness, he spoke of forgiving offenders not seven times, but 70 times seven. And at his most vulnerable, he asked the Father to forgive his tormentors, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). As he was dying, he still saw people—really saw them. And he still loved them. In Genesis 16:13, Hagar says to God, “You are a God who sees me.”
That notion of seeing someone, and thereby recognizing their dignity as well, is what Rogers embodied so well. He cared for people and seemed to make each person he interacted with the most important conversation of his day. And while the journalist might not have believed him during that initial phone call where Rogers says, “The most important thing to me right now is Lloyd Vogel,” eventually he comes to. There are plenty of great takeaways from the person and character of Rogers, but at the very least, I hope to emulate that same intentionality in my personal interaction with others.
Pointing broken people to Jesus
Now, lest we put Rogers on too high a saintly pedestal, I appreciate one particular conversation Vogel has with Rogers’ wife, Joanne. During that exchange, she explains that her husband actually has to work at being the way he is. She says he reads Scripture daily, he prays for people by name, he swims laps to vent. The film further humanizes Rogers by touching on some regrets he had in his own parenting, particularly when his children hit their teenage years. We see the regret in his eyes. Surely there were times when it must have been tough for a kid to have a parent like Rogers. He also speaks of taking out his anger and frustration on the low bass notes of the piano.
But at his best, Rogers cared for people, particularly the “broken people,” as Vogel refers to himself. Rogers simply wanted to help, serve, and put people on a better path. And as I think of Jesus, I’m reminded of the broken people he, too, encountered. In the gospel of John, for instance, when he met the Samaritan woman at the well, he saw through her. Without ever having met her, he spoke of her sin, but didn’t leave it at that. He saw her—really saw her. He spoke to her of her true need and offered her that better path, a path leading to himself. And in him, she was fully seen, fully known, and fully loved. As believers, we are called to do likewise in order that we might point our neighbors to the One who not only sees them but offers them the forgiveness and salvation we ultimately need.