Review(ish): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I may have made a mistake in my quest to catch up on movies.

Because I admire Tom Hanks as an actor and Fred Rogers as a loving and generous soul, I wanted to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I had appreciated the 2018 documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and wanted to see what more this fact-inspired fictional movie had to say. I knew that it was about a journalist who had written a piece about Fred Rogers, but little else, other than that Tom Hanks had been nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor.

I found the juxtaposition of the much darker story of the journalist, Lloyd, played by Matthew Rhys, with the gentle, caring, spiritual depth of Fred Rogers to be jarring. I also hadn’t known that the death of a parent is a major theme in the movie; while the situation in the film is very different from my own recent experience, that aspect of the story was still upsetting for me.

My reaction reminded me of my response to the film Julie & Julia, another film about an unlikely pair of protagonists in which I reacted positively to the elder and negatively to the younger. An aside: the link in the prior sentence is to a blog post I wrote in 2014 about my reaction to the film and blogging. Re-reading it just now was… an experience – and a chance to look back at a post from early in my blogging and poetry days and reflect on where I am now as opposed to where I thought I might be. At any rate, I think it still stands up as a decent piece of writing, so, if you have the time and are so inclined, check it out.

When my daughters were young, PBS was a mainstay in our house. I admit that I had a more enjoyable time watching Sesame Street with the girls than Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I wasn’t a fan of the slow pacing and I was not at all a fan of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Every time someone said, “Correct, as usual.” to King Friday the XIII, I cringed. Over the years, I’ve learned to think about it more from the child’s viewpoint and understand that the show was built to give children the time and space to deal with their whole range of emotions. This was not readily apparent to me as a young parent.

There is one episode that has always stayed with me. Yo-Yo Ma was Mr. Rogers’ guest and was playing a movement of one of the Bach cello suites. Fred asked him if he played it differently after he had had children and Yo-Yo Ma said that he did play it differently after he became a parent, that the emotions underlying his interpretation were changed because of his children. As a musician myself, this resonated with me and has stayed with me over the (many intervening) years.

Some of the most emotionally resonant moments in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for me were ones where something Mr. Rogers was saying reminded me of my own family. For example, there is thread in the story about Mr. Rogers’ attachment to his puppets, like Daniel Tiger, even though they were getting worn. In an attempt to draw him out, Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd about his own childhood “special friend”, which turned out to be a stuffed toy called Old Rabbit.

My mind immediately flashed to a story of childhood toys that take on larger meaning. When my daughter E and her spouse L had to spend major amounts of time on different continents while doing research or while waiting for the visa process to finally complete, they would exchange their favorite stuffed toys. E’s cow “Kuh” and L’s duck “Pineapple” made quite a few transoceanic flights and are now ensconced in London permanently with E, L, and their daughter ABC. To show you the extent to which Kuh and Pineapple were connected to E and L’s love story, here is the wedding cake topper that a friend made for them:
Beth and Larry's caketopper

Back to the movie. When the journalist Lloyd finishes his piece, his spouse reads it, saying that it is brilliant but not really about Mr. Rogers. I feel the same way about this blogpost, which is why I said in the title that it is “review(ish)”. Fred Rogers’ greatest gift was caring about each person he met on a deep level, meeting them where they were and helping them connect with and express their own feelings. It is all to the good that this film, the documentary, the vast archives of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the non-profit organization he founded, re-named Fred Rogers Productions after his death, which now produces Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, serve as continuing reminders to accept ourselves and care for others.

Mr. Rogers often said or sang, “I like you just the way you are.” That message to me is part of the call, expressed in Christianity and held by those of many other spiritual paths, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who taught by his example. I appreciate those who are carrying his message in the present and into the future.

The world needs to hear that message now more than ever.
*****
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Review: “The Post”

Most of the plot of “The Post” takes place over a few days in 1971 when the Washington Post released parts of the  Pentagon Papers, detailing what was going on behind the scenes in the government and military before and during the Vietnam War.

Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the paper’s publisher, with great sensitivity and nuance. She conveys so much with a slight raising of an eyebrow or trembling of fingers. Tom Hanks plays the hard-driving Post editor Ben Bradlee with appropriate business-like bluster, although letting his personal feelings show in some scenes when he is alone with Graham or his wife.

I was a child living in rural New England when the Pentagon papers were released. We were somewhat sheltered from the protests and intrigues about the war, but there were certain things about that time that I remember and that resonated for me while watching the film.

First was how much I admire Katharine Graham, who was a woman in a position of power in a field dominated by men and also dealing with the overwhelmingly male realms of finance and government. There are several scenes in the film that accentuate the uniqueness of her position in that timeframe. After the death of her father and her husband, she inherited the job of publisher of the Post and succeeded in bringing the paper from being a local Washington one to national prominence.  The Pentagon Papers story was a major part of that rise in stature, which continues to this day. The Washington Post has been breaking major stories on the inner workings of the current White House and on the Russian influence investigation.

Second was where my brain jumps every time I hear the name Daniel Ellsberg – to the phrase “Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.” I remember news coverage after the Papers came out about efforts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had been the source of the secret study to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist had been broken into by an FBI and a CIA agent to try to find materials with which to blackmail Ellsberg and this was covered in the news media.

I hope that no one is breaking into offices in the present day, but it is a stark reminder of how chilling it is to have the government try to interfere with the freedom of the press. Toward the end of the film, there is a quote from the 6-3 majority Supreme Court decision that allowed the Times and the Post and other papers to continue to publish stories from the Pentagon Papers. [What follows is probably not the exact quote from the movie, but it is taken from the concurrence of Justice Black. The Supreme Court document can be found here.]

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

I hope people will think of this every time the President denigrates the press or says that a member of the press is lying when they are actually reporting or says that the press is the enemy.

The United States needs a free press today as much as it always has. It is an absolute necessity for the health of our nation and our democracy. I thank director Stephen Spielberg and everyone involved in “The Post” for the timely reminder.
*****
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