Synopsis – Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Lloyd Vogel.
My Take – Mr. Fred Rogers, who passed away in 2003, at the age of 73, was a towering figure in American television and popular culture, and known mainly as the host of his educational television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968 and 2001), where he helped children understand serious events like death, divorce and war, while also encouraged parents to remember their own childhoods. And above gained the reputation of being one of the nicest people working in the cutthroat entertainment business.
Unfortunately, his popularity was restricted to North America itself, as I myself, living in the Middle East, never knew much about him, except that he was the subject of the very successful 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but with Tom Hanks cast to play Mr. Rogers in his biopic, my interest severely piqued.
Surprisingly, director Marielle Heller’s film, based on the 1998 article ‘Can You Say… Hero?’ by Tom Junod, turned out to be a well-tempered piece that avoids the pitfalls of a standard biopic, and instead casts him as a supporting character in another man’s story with the focus solely on the TV host’s tangible kindness rather than his celebrity status.
Making the film a gorgeously moving character drama that is both charming and enjoyable, and features an expertly observed performance by Tom Hanks, who also happens to be Mr. Rogers’ sixth cousin genealogically, a role which also earned him Oscar supporting actor nomination. While Hanks doesn’t actually look anything like the famous children’s TV star, he has something more important than superficial resemblance, like Mr. Rogers, he exudes decency, empathy, compassion and makes being a good man look effortless.
Of course, being a good man was not effortless for Mr. Rogers, he worked at it, every day, and that’s one of the themes of this very touching film.
Set in 1998, the story follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical investigative journalist known for his hard-hitting exposés published in the Esquire magazine. Living a cynical workaholic life where he avoids his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their newborn son, with his absences preventing her from resuming her career as a lawyer. With anger stemming from his troubled childhood, when his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper), left him and his young sister, Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard) alone with their dying mother (Jessica Hecht) in favor of worldly pleasures.
While Jerry has repented and desperately seeks Lloyd’s forgiveness, Lloyd is no mood to move on, an act which leads to a fight breaking out during Lorraine’s wedding reception. However, his life takes a surprising turn when his editor (Christine Lahti) sends him to Pittsburgh to profile Fred Rodgers (Tom Hanks), for their ‘Heroes’ issue, as every other celebrity Esquire is profiling has refused to be interviewed by him, due to his tough questioning, except for Mr. Rogers.
While he only has time for a short interview, but in those few minutes, he gives his undivided attention to Vogel, where Mr. Rogers questions about his busted nose, and gives him his quiet but laser-like focus. Surprised by Mr. Rogers’s gentle manner, which seems indistinguishable from his on-screen persona, Lloyd initially believes him to be a fraud and sets out to expose him in the article.
But with Mr. Rogers, what you see is exactly what you get, and through patience and kindness, Mr. Rogers instead begins to expose Lloyd’s childhood trauma, and helps him to heal even as they form a lasting bond of friendship.
With just three films in directorial career, director Heller (Can You Forgive Me?) is already displaying a skill for being a visually economic storyteller who precisely tailors the look of her films to moods and emotions. As the film finds Mr. Rogers near the end of his life, considering his legacy in an entertainment world that largely dismayed him, which might be perfectly suitable material for a film about the man, but instead she shows Mr. Rogers as a counselor and friend whose angelic aura is generated by his actual behavior.
Much like the format of ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’, the film unfolds as children’s story covering challenging adult themes, introduced and concluded by Hanks’ Mr. Rogers. Replicating the soothing tracking shots deployed in show, she astutely uses Mr. Rogers’ studio set and a replica of the model of his town, the surreal faux episode promises to teach the audience about anger by talking about Vogel. This re-creation of show is sweet and a little strange, which is exactly the mix of moods director Heller tries to summon anytime Mr. Rogers is on-screen.
There are also multiple scenes on the sets giving Hanks the opportunity to sing the theme song and perform as several of the recurring puppet characters. We watch as he delays production to spend an extra amount of time befriending a child, or decides that a sequence in which he fails to construct a tent might be more valuable for his audience than if he had successfully assembled it.
Even though he’s known for his understanding of children, Mr. Rogers tells Vogel he had trouble bringing up one of his own sons. Mr. Rogers has a temper, his wife tells Vogel, and that’s something that he exorcises by swimming, or banging the low notes on a piano. He might seem perfect, but he’s far from it, Mr. Rogers tells Vogel. However, it is director Heller’s deft touch is what makes the film succeed.
The script, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is lovely but modest, a tale of Vogel’s personal redemption and self-improvement that could easily come off with the sappiness of a Hallmark special. But director Heller has never been afraid to emphasize the melancholy that can underlie a joyful moment, and Vogel is an ideal hero for her to take on. She demonstrates that Mr. Rogers is teaching Vogel not how to be happy, but how to understand sadness, a message about embracing emotion that was crucial to the show. That nuance makes the film a sincere, measured, and clever homage to its subject.
With the most triumphant scene in the film, being when Lloyd and Fred out to lunch in a Chinese restaurant. There, before eating, Fred asks Lloyd to join him in a moment of silent contemplation, where they think about all of the people whose love impacted their lives. Director Hell makes the essential choice of dropping the sound out, all the other fellow patrons join in this moment, and the film achieves a state of grace.
Tom Hanks, perfectly cast, delivers a performance that is gentle without being maudlin. Mr. Rogers is a tough character to play, as too much pleasantness can look sickly, or even creepy on the screen. But Hanks, in his usual folksy mode, manages to inject just enough fallibility and insecurity into his portrayal to appear realistic. It is hard to play such a famous figure, particularly in a film in which he is really a supporting character, and to find new levels to reach beneath the stillness, but the star does it.
Matthew Rhys (The Americans) manages the neat trick of being sympathetic while playing an unsympathetic character. His gradual development as the film progress gives Rhys ample opportunity to flex his chops, and he does so excellently. In supporting turns, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster, Christine Lahti and Jessica Hecht are also equally good. On the whole, ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ is an enchanting and surprising pleasant film that deserves a watch especially for Tom Hanks‘ portrayal.
Directed – Marielle Heller
Rated – PG
Run Time – 109 minutes