Not since Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi has there been such a deserved cinematic preservation of a singular person than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a new movie about Fred Rogers, i.e. beloved children’s TV host Mr. Rogers. Both focus on men, using little more than their sheer force of will and unbending kindness, helped motivate millions and moved nations. I’m sure that’s what the producers would love you to think, anyway, and they’d be mostly right.
Based largely on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” the film plays loose with time and circumstance, amalgamating events when it’s necessary to move the plot forward or to score points with the audience. Thankfully, that’s an easy score as its hard to imagine that anyone watching won’t come in without some positive memory of Mr. Rogers. Albert Einstein, a fairly revered individual in his own right, once said of India’s favorite son that “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Surely, a person so universally beloved and cherished as Mr. Rogers should be at the center of his own movie?
Not quite! A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood actually centers around Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist working for Esquire magazine whose writing may win awards, but earns him no favors with interviewees; his extreme style of expose has made it near-impossible for him to find subjects willing to open up to him.
While attending his sister’s umpteenth wedding he can’t help avoid Jerry (Chris Cooper), his estranged father whose drinking and skirt-chasing had dire consequences on a younger Lloyd, his sister and their deceased mother. The family reunion doesn’t go well and Llyod’s left with a bloodied face and renewed feelings of familial anguish and regret over events long past.
He’s got his own family to think about, and that means working. His wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), an attorney who’s taken maternity leave to care for their newborn son Gavin, is caring but worried about her husband’s mental health, knowing the best way for him to heal is to work his way through the pain. He’s peeved when he’s assigned a 400-word profile on Fred Rogers for an upcoming “Heroes” issue, basically a puff piece filler he feels is below his talents. After telling Andrea the news his wife pleads with him, half joking, half not: “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
This is exactly the same setup we last saw in 2015’s The End of the Tour, which worked then as it does now (writers are suckers for a setup involving writers practicing their craft). Rather than visit a suicidal writer in the snowy outskirts of Illinois, Llyod instead enters PBS member station WQED studio in Pittsburgh to meet and interview the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).
Their brief, but pivotal, first meeting leaves Llyod unsure whether his new subject is pulling his leg or not. “He’s just about the nicest person I’ve ever met,” he tells his editor. “I don’t know if he’s for real.” By profiling the world’s most beloved neighbor he begins a journey to find himself after years of suppressing the anger and ingrained cynicism that’s distorted his perspective on fatherhood and self-worth.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t a traditional biopic, or much of a biopic at all. The story never really focuses on either Fred Rogers or his television counterpart, a distinction we learn isn’t as distinct as we might have thought. The major focus is on Matthew Rhys to play the catalyst of what’s to come, his portrayal as suffering writer Llyod Vogel providing the necessary forward momentum, helped by a fine screenplay by writing duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), through one man’s troubled childhood into what seems to be an equally troubled adulthood.
The real Tom Junod, incidentally, appeared in last year’s tear-inducing documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which is practically required watching for anyone needing a proper dose of the real Fred Rogers.
So what could possibly explain the longevity of a show like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which, in some form or another, began broadcasting in 1962 and ran nearly uninterrupted for almost 40 years? The times may have changed but Mr. Rogers’ unwavering patience and resilient wardrobe, along with those low-budget sets and puppets, did not. His calm, soothing presence helped children from all backgrounds navigate things on their level, guiding them through a fast-changing world in which racism, political assassination and divorce were realities.
Tom Hanks, despite looking and sounding almost nothing like the real Fred Rogers (makeup and a red sweater can only work do so much) is able to capture, using little more than squinty eyes and practiced mannerisms, Rogers’ unique essence, that unmistakable purity of character and utter patience so recognizable to generations of children – and their parents.
“He’s not a saint,” Rogers’ wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) tells Lloyd after witnessing Rogers in his element, interacting with children. He’s just a man – a sinner – like the rest of us. A man who felt anger and frustrations like anyone else, channeling his own fear through positive actions. The film never dances around his Presbyterianism faith or the fundamentals of Christianity that helped form the basis of a philosophy that never preached down to those listening, or preached much at all.
And speaking of revelations, one occurred to me only long after I’d left the theater, that Hanks’ Fred Rogers was really just a variation on his most popular creation, Forrest Gump. That same delayed drawl, the same non-judgemental kindness and sincere concern that helped win Hanks his second (consecutive) Oscar and helped cement his status as one of the most beloved film stars of all-time, is right there on the screen again, just older and in the form of Mr. Rogers.
Director Marielle Heller (2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?) makes some interesting choices bringing this story to screen, not all successful. The entire film is quasi-framed as telling Llyod’s story as an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, including the show’s famous craftwork interstitial transitions. A dream sequence showing Llyod essentially joining Rogers’ cast of puppets nearly threatens to upend the natural goodwill the film rightfully earns. Mr. Rogers never needed razzle dazzle to sell his message, and neither does a film about his real-life counterpart.
One thing she does perfectly is knowing when to focus her camera directly onto faces at just the right moment, finding – not wringing – real human emotion. In the film’s most devastatingly effective scene Rogers asks Llyod to join him in a one-minute moment of silence so they can think about all the people who ever loved them. At this moment the camera itself becomes a kind of reverse television screen, allowing Rogers/Hanks to stare at us – the audience – for a change.
By blending these two beloved icons into a single entity the film suggests that the relationship between Rogers and his viewers was symbiotic, as important for him as it was for them. That Hanks is the vessel channeling Rogers’ message of goodwill and inherent goodness cannot be an accident; at this point it’s difficult to tell where Fred Rogers begins and Tom Hanks ends.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood suggests the real Fred Rogers may not be deserving of just a movie, but possible canonization. After this and last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor we could be witnessing the creation of a modern mythology in real-time. As role models go we could certainly do worse than a man whose entire life appeared every bit as real and genuine offscreen as on, the living embodiment of how simple acts of kindness and listening can be powerful magic. Such things are virtually absent in so much of today’s “cancel culture”, a toxic effort to replace empathy and kindness with selfishness and narcissism.
Fred Rogers once asked “How do we make goodness attractive?” As another traveler in the art of unconditional love and kindness once remarked, be the change you want to see in the world. Let this movie help serve as an antidote for those who’ve fallen to degenerative cynicism – and knowing its OK to cry when realizing you are loved.