“Hero/it’s a nice-boy notion that the real world’s gonna destroy./You know/it’s a Marvel-comic-book, Saturday-matinee fairytale, boy. … When they ain’t as big as life/When they ditch their second wife/ Where’s the boy to go?” (Steve Taylor, “Hero”).
You can sympathize with Lloyd Vogel when he thinks there’s more to Fred Rogers than what he presents to children on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019; Redbox or for purchase on Amazon Prime), Vogel (writer Tom Junod, in real life) is assigned to write a profile on Fred Rogers for an Esquire magazine issue on heroes. When he tells his wife, Andrea, that he’s going to Pittsburgh to interview Mister Rogers, she says, “Oh, I love him.” “You do?” And she says, “At least it’s someone good.” “We’ll see,” Lloyd says. “Don’t ruin my childhood,” Andrea says.
People we admired, people we liked, people we wanted to emulate: how many of the pillars on which we placed them have been smashed by revelations from the distasteful to the offensive to the evil? “Don’t meet your heroes,” the saying goes, because how often do they not live up to our expectations? That, of course, might be part of the problem. From what we see on the screen, we create images of people and what they must be like; we have trouble distinguishing between the person and the characters they play. And when we discover that they are not the people we’ve seen and imagined, those shattered perceptions become a mountain of skepticism or cynicism.
So Lloyd’s expectations are not foreign to what we know often to be the case. But it’s not just that Lloyd has expectations about what people are like when the camera is off. He expects it because his father first shattered the heroic image that boys often have of their fathers. His father abandoned Lloyd, his sister, and their dying mother just when they needed him the most. The movie implies that Lloyd has often interviewed people with the intention of exposing what lies beneath their false facades. He expects that it won’t be otherwise with Fred Rogers.
But Rogers isn’t what Lloyd expects. When Lloyd asks him whether he considers himself a hero, he says, “No, I wouldn’t say that I consider myself a hero.” But what about Mister Rogers? When Fred says he doesn’t understand the question, Lloyd tries to pull apart Fred Rogers the person from “Mister Rogers,” the TV personality. Lloyd expects hypocrisy. He expects that people are never what they appear to be, or how they present themselves. He expects everyone to be wearing some kind of mask (even when they’re not mandated by state governments).
Instead of a dual man, with one face for the public and one in his private life, Lloyd finds a complicated man who practices the sort of virtue he wants to present to children. Mister Rogers put into practice the sort of habits that would make him the sort of man he wanted to be, first in private, and then in public. He seems to have been a model of integrity.
The structure of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has a subtle brilliance in that it performs the same function narratively as the questions that Fred turns back toward Lloyd. When Lloyd has finished his profile of Mister Rogers, Andrea reads it and says, “It’s not really about Mister Rogers. It’s more about you. It’s really good.” (It is definitely also about Mister Rogers.)
Isn’t that what the best characters and movies and literature and stories and people do? In showing us something that appears to be about someone else, they actually show us who we are. And if that’s what they can do, then maybe heroes will cease to be flawless icons of greatness, and instead be patterns for living out a life. As Joanne Rogers says in the film, “He’s not a perfect man.” If we hold up Fred Rogers, or anyone else, as perfection, then they and their behavior are out of the reach of the majority of people. And that’s the last thing toward which Mister Rogers would aim.
In that same scene, Joanne eschews the word “saint,” but maybe we ought to restore the Christian, rather than the popular, conception of saints. Instead of viewing saints as primarily those who have an extra capacity for holiness in their lives, Lutherans have always honored notable Christians (including those notable only for us, like Timothy’s Lois and Eunice) as exemplars of both faith and life. They are not, by their own virtue, a few steps beyond us toward perfection. They are, like us, believing, struggling, living, working in the midst of the same age, the same world, the same life. As they believed, so they acted in love. Thus they become for us believers to emulate.
The stories of saints (i.e., the holy ones who belong to the holy God), as well as the stories of other virtuous people, have a part to play in the ways that we live and serve our neighbors. As Lloyd attempts to profile Mister Rogers, it is his own profile that he sketches. As we likewise look into the mirrors such stories provide and see reflected our own lives, perhaps then, as far as it is possible in this life, the person begins to match a little more closely the persona.