Conversational Commitment and Unconditional Love in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

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– By Sam Hendrian –

“Do you know what the most important thing is to me right now? Talking to Lloyd Vogel.”

The renowned children’s television host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) speaks these words to the emotionally-wounded journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in an early scene of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a new, true story-inspired film that is both uplifting and challenging in the best of ways. It celebrates the unique preciousness of every human person and tells us to focus on loving people one person at a time, as can be seen from this piece of dialogue. Now, it is undeniable that distractions abound in our lives. How can we ever channel our compassion into a singular focus? It is by no means easy—not even for Mr. Rogers—but this quietly heroic man shows us that it is most certainly possible.

When Lloyd Vogel accepts an assignment from the magazine Esquire to do a profile piece on Mr. Rogers, he is not looking for spiritual healing of any sort. He simply wants to get the job done and, if at all possible, reveal that even a seeming saint like Mr. Rogers has a dark, twisted side. While he has a loving wife and baby son, there is an anger and cynicism that constantly casts a shadow over Lloyd’s face, a shadow that darkens whenever his estranged, oft-drunk father unexpectedly appears to seek his forgiveness.

But Lloyd’s anger and cynicism are no match for Fred Rogers’s transcendent kindness and optimism. Rather than unveil a dark, twisted side of the famously gentle man, Lloyd uncovers a beautifully pure heart that nonetheless is constantly tormented by the imperfections and insecurities that inhabit even the most virtuous of human beings. He remarks during one interview that it must be hard for Fred’s two sons to have grown up with a dad so beloved by children across the country. Fred’s face darkens for a moment as he admits that his relationship with his sons has not always been smooth. From this moment forwards, Lloyd begins to deeply trust and admire the man he came to cynically profile, as he is touched by such uncommon honesty and self-awareness.

While he would probably never say so out loud, Lloyd’s conversations with Mr. Rogers primarily transform into a quest for consolation and personal growth rather than a magazine article. Never has he met someone so kind and perceptive, so genuinely interested in his own needs and struggles. When he bumps into Fred’s wife Joanne, he cannot help but ask, “What’s it like to be married to a living saint?” Joanne gently but firmly replies, “I’ve never liked that term. It implies something unattainable. Fred has to work at who he is. He’s not perfect.”

Lloyd is quietly inspired by this response, yet he is equally puzzled by it. Fred makes his sincere, patient demeanor look so effortless. Could not the man have really just been born like this? How could he, wounded and world-weary Lloyd Vogel, possibly find inside himself the capacity to love with the genuineness that Fred has?

The answer subtly appears in a key scene during which Fred and Lloyd are having lunch together at a Chinese restaurant. Fred calls for a minute of silence during which Lloyd can recall all the nurturing people in his life who have “loved him into loving.” Lloyd finds this exercise rather uncomfortable, and we never know if his emotional wounds and stubbornness melt in time for him to think of anybody. But if Fred were to initiate this exercise of gratitude again at the end of the film, it is easy to guess who would pop into his head first.

For it is ultimately Fred who loves Lloyd into loving, who gently shows him that he is capable of forgiveness and is precious exactly as he is. Fred, like the 2,000-year-old man he strives to imitate, never forces anything on Lloyd. When Lloyd storms out of an interview that he feels became too personal, Fred does not chase after him. Rather, he simply looks sad and asks, “Where are you going, Lloyd?” In a later scene when Lloyd finally comes to embrace Fred’s genuine concern for him and accepts the challenge of forgiving his father, it is through his own free will, a will that is moved not by force but by grace.

Of course, grace alone is rarely a satisfying explanation, especially when the term has become so ubiquitous that its meaning is not clear. How exactly does a person receive grace? Is it an active or inactive process? Perhaps it is both an active and inactive process. There are two great enemies of grace: fear and stubbornness. Lloyd stubbornly resists the idea that a stranger like Fred could instantly love him so unconditionally, and beyond that, he is fearful that he is not deserving of such love. “You love people like me,” Lloyd observes in a somewhat bewildered tone. “Broken people.”

Fred responds, “I don’t think you’re broken,” going on to explain that he sees Lloyd as a good man who is trying his best to face the many difficulties of adulthood. Lloyd is active enough to receive grace, but he is not inactive enough to do so; he needs to paradoxically convey gratitude and acceptance towards all his faults and failings, recognizing that he is immeasurably lovable even with them. Only then will he feel the fullness of the Unconditional Love that is being transported through Mr. Rogers.

Fred is a master of conversational commitment, and it is primarily this mastery that solidifies Lloyd’s growing understanding of his own unique preciousness. We humans are easily distracted creatures. Even when we care about someone and want nothing more than to be talking to them at a particular moment, our eyes almost instinctively wander to other people we know if they happen to pass by. This may seem polite—after all, nobody likes to be ignored—but it sends a discouraging message to the person we were originally listening to.

In both this movie and in real life, Fred Rogers strived daily to focus on whichever individual he was talking to at a given moment. In doing so, he demonstrated to them that they mattered, that they were cherished exactly as they were and where they were. We can and should strive to do this too.

As Joanne Rogers said, her husband was not a perfect man. He had a temper just like anybody else, a temper he says to have sometimes combated by pounding low keys on the piano. This coping mechanism is depicted hauntingly during the poetic final scene of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. After a long day at work, Fred sits down at the piano and pounds some low keys. His pounding then evolves into a graceful, abstract rendition of what is perhaps his most timeless, powerful composition: “It’s You I Like.” And as the film fades to black, we realize that Fred’s simplicity was complicated. His effortlessness was an effort. But his mission of sincere, unconditional love was unstoppable, marked by the constant reception of Grace.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood should be seen by everyone. It is not a mere piece of Hollywood comfort food with a cliched rewording of “To thine own self be true.” No, this movie is a call to action, a timely reminder that the choice to live a peacefully happy life of love is and ever shall be ours. It is also a sort of cinematic letter addressed to each of us with the following message:

You are an unrepeatable gift.
You have a purpose.
You are immeasurably loved exactly as you are.

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.

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