Tom Hanks Captures the Kindness of Fred Rogers in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is about those moments in life when a bad spell is broken by meeting someone unique for no other reason than their sincerity. It would have been easy to just cast Tom Hanks in a regular biopic about Fred Rogers, but that would have missed the point of what this personality represented. Rogers was not renowned for grand, heroic feats and his TV show was a model of simplicity. What made Fred Rogers endearing was his sense of the need for goodness in a cruel world.
The real protagonist of this film is writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire in the 1990s known for his relentless profiles of famous figures. Lloyd is also going through a personal family storm when his deadbeat alcoholic father Jerry (Chris Cooper) shows up at his sister’s wedding. A fight ensues, punches are exchanged leaving Lloyd even more drowned in bitterness to the point of creating friction with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). When his editor asks him to profile Fred Rogers (Hanks), Lloyd scoffs at the idea. But there’s no denying Mr. Rogers is a major celebrity so Lloyd reluctantly visits the giant of children’s programming at the studio where he films the show. What begins as a quick interview turns into a semi-therapy session as Rogers probes into Lloyd’s own obvious tensions. Maybe through the TV host’s message of forgiveness and kindness the writer can discover a way to cope with the demons of his past.
It would be slightly unfair to tag “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as a mere “feel good movie.” While it has much warmth and deserves its PG rating, director Marielle Heller doesn’t necessarily take a safe approach. The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is based on the original 1998 Esquire piece “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, who did claim meeting Rogers changed his life, improved his writing and solidified a friendship that lasted until Rogers died in 2003. Heller doesn’t opt to just retell this story however. By channeling Junod through the fictional Lloyd Vogel, the emphasis becomes the lingering scars of hurtful life events, and how difficult it can be to let go. Heller is both sly and creative even in her visual approach. The film opens as if we were watching the introduction of the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” show, with Hanks strolling into the famous living room set, singing the “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” theme, putting on his sweater and introducing us to a picture of Lloyd, with a black eye. There is a real pain in the dialogue when Lloyd confronts his father at his sister’s wedding, raging over being abandoned to care for his dying mother years before. None of it is done with the artificial mood of a Hallmark movie. Lloyd really does come across as damaged and lost. There’s a special maturity to the way the writers’ story is then developed with the persona of Mr. Rogers.
Key to what the film conveys about Rogers is of course the performance by Tom Hanks. Plumper than the real guy, what Hanks does so well is channel the essence of Rogers’ personality. He’s so kind, speaking with such a measured tone, that it’s easy to see why Lloyd is skeptical. This is a world where actual nice people are all too rare. He asks Lloyd about his problems the way you would talk with an angry child but lacking condescension. Hanks’s Fred Rogers is not naïve, just lacking in a short fuse, attuned to how we work and feel. We get few concrete biographical details, except for hints here and there, as when Rogers addresses the audience during his show and mentions that he suffered as a kid from bullies for being overweight. For more details simply watch last year’s moving documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Heller is more intrigued by how a cynic like Lloyd, who basks in writing iconoclastic pieces stripping bare his famous subjects, reacts when faced with someone who isn’t perfect, no one is, but doesn’t hold on to toxic memories and truly walks the talk. The best moments in “A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood” involve Rogers and Lloyd sitting together in a diner or at home, one holding onto his grudges, the older one wisely giving advice.
Other aspects of the film are a wonderful tribute to the legacy of the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” PBS show. For exterior shots of New York and other cities Heller uses miniatures that look exactly like the miniature town featured at the beginning of the famous program. Even when Lloyd gets on an airplane Heller cuts to an obvious toy model in flight. Maddie Corman appears as a strikingly close Lady Aberlin singing along with Daniel Tiger (with Hanks showing off his puppetry skills). The brilliance of Hanks’s performance during these scenes is how he hints at Rogers’ hidden, rougher edges. He only slightly raises his voice to more authoritative level when crew ask if he wants to do another take. In another shot he sits down to play a piano, and for a brief moment, some hidden tension peek out as he pounds the keys.
But this is Lloyd’s story and as it develops it becomes a moving, familial parable about fathers and sons putting aside hurtful pasts. Chris Cooper is sympathetic as Jerry, trying ever so hard to convince Lloyd he’s now sober and redemptive. It’s not just children, but adults too who don’t know how to process anger, something with Rogers understands keenly. Go see this movie on a bad day, it actually might just help.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” never pretends to be a grand biopic of Fred Rogers, but because of that it successfully reminds us of what made him endearing. In a world where being crude and mean are the norm, where everyone feels stressed, here is a film with a wonderful lead performance to remind us that kindness can be the most radical act of all.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” opens Nov. 22 in theaters nationwide.