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Mary McNamara: 'A Beautiful Day' is a great movie. It just misses the point of Mister Rogers

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

If I can claim no other legacy than this, I am a proud member of the demographic for which Mister Rogers built his neighborhood and changed children's television.

I thought I was perfectly happy with "Romper Room," Yogi Bear, "Captain Kangaroo" and, locally, "Professor Kool's Fun School" (and later "Captain Chesapeake"), until this guy opened his front door, slipped into something a little more comfortable (presumably on his lunch hour because he changed back into work clothes when he left) and rocked my world.

I sat mesmerized while Rogers gently encouraged us to speak truth, explore our feelings, consider those of others and enjoy simple things, all while making me part of an audience that television suddenly took seriously in ways other than Easy-Bake Oven marketing.

"Sesame Street," which premiered a few years after "Mister Rogers" came to us via the Eastern Educational Network, which later became American Public Television, may not have taught me to read, but it tried to teach me to share; two years after that, "The Electric Company" made us all feel very cool and streetwise while "Schoolhouse Rock" created a generation for whom the Preamble to the Constitution can only be sung.

I wept my way through last year's documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and was prepared to weep some more during "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers? Absurdly perfect. An adaptation of Tom Junod's Esquire piece in which a sardonic journalist, played by Matthew Rhys, is granted spiritual grace by a subject most assumed he would be roasting? Yes, please.

I laughed, I cried, I wished Hanks would run for president (and not for the first time.) It was a lovely movie. Of course, it completely missed the point of Mister Rogers, at least Mister Rogers as I, and most of the world, experienced him, but then how could it not? It was a movie, and Mister Rogers was a master of television.

 

The miracle was not that, as a perceptive and stubbornly caring man, he was able to bring grace and illumination to the people he met. It was that he was able to bring grace and illumination to those he hadn't. The wonder was not that he changed these people's lives by making them value themselves a little more and fear other people a little less; it's that he was able to do this through television.

Mister Rogers never tried to make life seem like a movie; he made television seem like life.

Way back in the "boob tube" days, long before even the first Golden Age had begun, Fred Rogers chose to put off his ordination as a minister because he felt called to work in television.

He believed in, worried over, evangelized about and harnessed the power of the medium in a way few have before or since. Against all conventional wisdom -- "wisdom" that still reigns today -- he valued repetition, simplicity (often to the point of shabbiness) and silence. Mister Rogers spoke softly, calmly, and he paused almost as much as he spoke, often for a long time.

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