Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film writer at the New York Post who divides her time between the city and western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As a critic, I’m not much for anointing “must see” movies – they’re too expensive these days, and viewers’ tastes too varied – but “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is pretty darn close to a must-see.
With Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the radically empathetic children’s show host Fred Rogers, director Marielle Heller has given our turbulent country a challenge: To re-learn to see one another as neighbors, rather than opponents.
One of the best things about “A Beautiful Day” is that it’s not just a biopic; instead, it traces the true story of a friendship that blossomed between a cynical magazine writer (played by Matthew Rhys) and Rogers, whom he was assigned to profile and whose unflappable generosity of spirit patiently withstood the writer’s every effort to “unmask” him. Surely he couldn’t possibly be the beatific character he portrayed on his show? (Spoiler alert: He basically was.)
I saw the movie this fall at the Toronto Film Festival, snuffling back tears along with the rest of the audience in a cavernous, star-studded theater. But it was when I came back home to western Pennsylvania that I really began to reflect on how much we still need Rogers, a native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and a longtime Pittsburgh resident. We need his teachings more than ever, particularly in the complicated, deeply divided region he called home. (If you don’t live around here, you’ve probably heard at least one of these narratives: Pittsburgh is the next big thing in progressive, smaller-city living; the surrounding rural area is a bastion of ride-or-die Trump loyalists. Both are hyperbolic.)
Unlike Rogers, I didn’t grow up here. I arrived four years ago, after a long stint in New York City, relocating to the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where my husband teaches at the local university. We made good friends here. We hiked in the woods and kayaked in the lake. I slowly began to recognize more and more faces around town. I felt I had a community.
Then the 2016 campaign season happened.
Cultural clashes came screaming to the forefront of daily life. I started noting frequent sightings of Confederate flags on cars. MAGA hats began to proliferate in alarming numbers; our Hillary Clinton sign disappeared from our front yard. By the time election night was winding down, I was in tears, convinced I’d unwittingly moved into a truly foreign land – one that didn’t want my kind around.
Just an hour away, Rogers’ neighborhood of Pittsburgh felt like a wildly different place, with its diverse population and more densely-packed neighborhoods, which – as in my old stomping ground of New York – compels one to get familiar with all kinds of people. Monuments to Rogers are all over, from the giant bronze statue by the Allegheny River to street murals to an exhibit at the Children’s Museum. I recall a cardboard cutout of the guy in one lovely tiny cafe, though I can’t recall the name. He never feels very far away.
But even Rogers’ city was not immune from the insanity sweeping the country. Heller finished filming in Pittsburgh for “Beautiful Day” just three days before the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27 last year. Heller, Hanks, Rogers’ widow Joanne and some other cast and crew members attended the memorial service.
It’s not hard to imagine Rogers tackling the subject of the shooting, a seemingly impossible task. He did it all the time on his show, talking frankly with young children about weighty subjects including death and divorce. Assassination even made it on, after the death of Robert F. Kennedy, as shown in last year’s excellent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
In “Beautiful Day,” the aspect of Rogers that makes him so hard to understand for Rhys’ character is his refusal to look past anyone’s humanity. His insistence on remembering that everyone was once a child, even people we disagree with. Even ones who do things we find downright abhorrent.
“You like broken people,” Rhys says to him at one point in the film. And what are we now if not an entire nation of broken people? As I write this, I think of a day some months ago in my town that saw a gathering of locals protesting a Trump policy – and another group, this one composed of Trump supporters, across our town’s main street, protesting equally loudly. Many of them were people who’ve lived here for years, who know each other, who know each other’s kids. All of them, essentially, neighbors.
Tom Junod, whose Esquire profile formed the basis for the “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” screenplay, recently wrote a follow-up piece in The Atlantic in which he pondered what Rogers would make of America today. “Fred was a man with a vision, and his vision was of the public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into something like a neighborhood. That vision depended on civility, on strangers feeling welcome in the public square, and so civility couldn’t be debatable. It couldn’t be subject to politics but rather had to be the very basis of politics, along with everything else worthwhile.”
I’ll be thinking of those words as the town of Indiana holds its annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” holiday festival (in honor of its most famous native, Jimmy Stewart) in the center of town this weekend. It’ll bring out people from all sides of the political spectrum, rubbing shoulders as they watch the parade. I think Rogers would appreciate the childlike wonder a parade can inspire in just about anyone.
Likewise, I think he’d be encouraged by a sign that’s been popping up in front of houses around town for a while now. It’s a small message, but a quietly hopeful one. The brightly-colored cardboard rectangle bears three versions of a single sentence, in English, Spanish and Arabic, that might have come straight from Rogers himself. “No matter where you are from,” it reads, “we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”