By now you’ve probably heard about or experienced the “minute of silence” scene in Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In the scene, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar) and reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) share a meal in a bustling New York City restaurant. Rogers invites the cynical, emotionally fraught journalist — whose job it is to profile the children’s TV show host — into silent contemplation of all the people who have “loved him into being.” Rogers goes silent; Vogel goes silent; and, after a few seconds, the entire restaurant goes silent. We viewers do, too.
It is a remarkable cinematic moment. In it, one kind of communion is suspended — eating, chatting, being in a public space — and another unfolds. There, we are joined by our personal cloud of witnesses, even as the faces before us reveal they are being joined by theirs.
And yet: fifteen minutes earlier in the film, another moment of silence transpires, one that reveals how Fred Rogers came to be the kind of human people so readily call a saint — the kind of human who can choreograph sixty seconds of grace-filled silence in a restaurant. Unlike the restaurant moment, this earlier scene is humble, more Daniel Striped Tiger than King Friday the Thirteenth. It doesn’t proclaim anything. It doesn’t command your attention. If you glance away, you may miss it.
This earlier moment unfolds in the living room of Fred and Joanne Rogers’ New York apartment, where Rogers has invited Vogel to continue their interview. The two are seated on a boxy, mid-century loveseat that holds them like a pair of puppets in a carrying case. (In fact, King Friday and Daniel Striped Tiger do lie in a carrying case on the coffee table.) Light filters through the drapes. With his characteristic “compulsive intimacy,” Rogers has probed Vogel for details about his painful childhood — including the death of his mother and his hostility toward his father — only to be rebuffed.
Everything about this situation makes Vogel uncomfortable, even to the point of constriction: the assignment itself (which suits him like an ill-fitting cardigan); the cramped, low-lit living room (reminiscent of a confessional); and, not least, his disarming subject, whose spatial and emotional closeups leave the journalist feeling cornered. And so he goes on the offensive.
The camera zooms in on Tom Hanks channeling Fred Rogers. The man’s face holds in something like rapture — not the saintly kind, but the human kind.
“I can’t imagine it was easy growing up with you as a father,” Vogel jabs.
What happens next is nothing — and everything.
For seven seconds, the camera zooms in on Tom Hanks channeling Fred Rogers. The man’s face holds in something like rapture — not the saintly kind, but the human kind.
Rogers is, in fact, being transported.
In the scene preceding this one, Vogel finds himself at the elbow of Rogers’ wife, Joanne, while the TV star greets fans on the street.
“So, how’s it feel to be married to a living saint?” Vogel asks in a casual aside.
Joanne bristles, in her own gentle way. It’s a question she gets a lot.
“I’m not fond of that term,” she answers. “If you think of him as a saint, his way of life is unattainable. You know, he works at it all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how to respond to that anger.”
“That must take a lot of effort.”
“No. He does things every day that help to ground him. He reads scripture. He swims laps. Prays for people by name. Writes letters. Hundreds of them. He’s been doing that since I met him.”
In the living room scene, we see the fruits of Rogers’ grounding practices. For seven pregnant seconds, Rogers’ face holds itself in the gauzy light. It holds Rogers’ own life as a father, a minister, and a public icon. It holds countless possible responses, both regal and vulnerable, both arrogant and wounded. In its barely perceptible micromovements, it holds and reveals an infinite number of Neighborhoods-of Make-Believe.
In the living room scene, we see the fruits of Rogers’ grounding practices.
It also shows us what it looks like to be a human with a dogged daily practice of holding and working with complex negative emotions — a practice that allows Rogers to respond, as he finally does, in tender and measured tones, in the voices of King Friday and Daniel Striped Tiger together at their wisest.
“Until recently my oldest never told anyone about me,” he finally says. “He’s very private, and that’s okay. And my youngest son — he genuinely tested me. But eventually we found our way, and now I’m very proud of both of them.”
“But you are right, Lloyd. It couldn’t have been easy on them. Thank you. Thank you for that perspective.”
If we think of Fred Rogers as a saint, we let him and ourselves off the hook. We blind ourselves to the work he chose to do, and we protect our own inertia. We cling to what we consider our right to respond to verbal attacks, minor and major, with either imperial self-righteousness or fearful avoidance.
If, on the other hand, we think of Rogers’ way of living as available to all of us, an invitation may open up. We Vogels of the world may find ourselves considering simple habits — one might even say childlike ones — such as swimming laps, praying out loud, and writing notes, habits that condition us to make, on the spot, our own seven-second journeys through all of the life-giving and death-dealing possibilities that lie before us, and to respond neither in blustery self-defense nor in trembling angst but in the tender, measured tones of love.
We can learn this kind of choosing, this grounded grace. And it might not be too much of a Neighborhood-of-Make-Believe stretch to say that the teaching and learning of this skill is perhaps our best hope for the future of our communion.