Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett
If you live outside of the United States, it’s highly likely you will never have heard of a man named Fred Rogers. Rogers was a beloved television host for children’s television, specifically his own show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was passionate not only about children’s academic learning, but also their emotional education and growth, an early pioneer of taking care of children’s mental health, if you will. Children absolutely loved Rogers and his show, a love that continues to this day. His show would tackle subjects considered taboo or too negative for children at the time (beginning in the 1960s). But what effect, if any, did Rogers have on adults? A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (herein Neighborhood) isn’t a biopic of Rogers, but instead based on a true story of how his work affected a cynical journalist, Tom Junod, when he was assigned Rogers as an interviewee. Does it work in getting across that magic that Rogers had when it came to comforting people, or are his songs and puppets best left for children?
In 1998, journalist Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is working for Esquire magazine. He has a reputation for being hard on his interviewees, and many people, celebrities in particular, refuse to be interviewed by him. As a result, he is given the task of interviewing the famous Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers (Hanks), the only person who will allow Lloyd to do so, for the magazine’s ‘heroes’ series. Lloyd has a lot of trouble with his father, Jerry (Cooper), their relationship having been turbulent and fractured ever since the death of his mother. On meeting Fred, Lloyd already has his back up, thinking there’s no way Fred could really be as kind, understanding and soft as he appears onscreen. As Lloyd gets to know Fred for the article, he begins to understand a lot about himself, reconciling the anger he holds against his father and the effect it has on him and those around him, including his wife Andrea (Watson) and their newborn son. Fred’s words and influence have a profound effect on Lloyd that he never expected.
Although based on Junod’s experience with Rogers and the resulting article (which was originally intended to be just 400 words but became the cover story) in Esquire magazine, ultimately most people are going to see this movie because they know of and probably love Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred himself. Therefore, you could argue that the biggest thing that had to be spot on in this movie is the depiction of Rogers and emulating his effect on people. Through Fitzerman-Blue’s and Harpster’s writing, Heller’s direction and the outstanding performance from Hanks, the film absolutely nails it and hits every mark it needed to. If you’ve never seen an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there’s plenty to see on YouTube to give you an idea of that je ne sais quoi Rogers had when it came to communicating with children. Not only that, but the way he communicated with adults, including on how they too should be talking to their children. Once you see it, feel it and understand it, you’ll note the similarities and homages within Neighborhood, including the familiar warmth and understanding that Rogers had and made his audiences feel. It’s truly a unique ability, rarely seen in any kind of media, and Neighborhood captures it as truly and honestly as any film possibly could.
Nostalgia for the television show fills the film’s framework. The story moves between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York City, and miniature landscapes and vehicles are used to symbolise this whenever there’s a transition in the same way they were used in the real show. It just gives it more of that Rogers-esque feel, using something that’s somewhat childlike within an adult story, giving it a level of comfort. The attention to detail overall in the production design is highly commendable, from the wardrobe and make-up to the scenery and puppets when the television show is being filmed. Much like Rogers himself, Neighborhood doesn’t shy away from darker subject matter, but again like Rogers it puts a positive spin on everything, and never in a patronising or unrealistic way. It’s convincing enough for us believe it turned a cynical and angry journalist around in his views on aspects of his own life, making for a thoroughly convincing and engrossing film as a whole.
Hanks is one of those actors where if you put him in any role, particularly a role based on a real person, he will disappear into it and you will forget it’s Hanks. His performance as Rogers is no exception, from the gentle lilt of Fred’s voice to the nuances of his facial expressions and his disposition, he fits the bill perfectly. In fact, it’s probably one of the top performances of his career (he’s already gotten a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Golden Globes, on top of being the recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award). He wonderfully embodies everything that was loved about Fred while also making him human; he wasn’t a perfect person, but rather someone who strived for perfection in a bid to just be a good person, and he came about as close to perfection as any person ever could (the documentary on Amazon Video, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is highly recommended as a great account of Fred himself and his legacy). Rhys’s performance as Lloyd, the fictionalised version of Junod, plays wonderfully against Hanks’s Fred as the contemptuous antithesis to all that is good. Lloyd’s story arc is a familiar one, but it could not be more necessary in this setting. Rhys plays the emotional scenes wonderfully, giving just enough when prompted but pulling back at just the right moment, preventing any monotony when it comes to the positivity that envelops the majority of the film. Cooper is a great antagonist as Lloyd’s father, a character that has perhaps the biggest reformation in the story, and a completely justified one rather than being just for the story’s sake.
It can be difficult to review a film such as this. As a critic, part of the job is to weed out the flaws of a film, to point out what doesn’t work as well as praise the parts that do work. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood probably does have its flaws, but they are so minimal to the point that they’re not even worth noting, because the majority of viewers will not notice: they will be far too engrossed with what they’re feeling over what they’re seeing. In fact, it would just be too pedantic to even go there. This film’s success will come from its purity of heart, a purity that has not a shade of cliché or ‘cheesiness’, for want of a better word. The reason it’s difficult to write about is because it needs to be seen in order to be felt, to understand that the heart that it has doesn’t deserve to have a bad word said about it. Its intentions are clear and true, just as Fred Rogers’ intentions were clear and true, and what’s even clearer is just how much his influence continues to make its mark on people of all ages.