WE COULD ALL USE A LITTLE KINDNESS.
Ten years ago, Tom Hanks learned that there was a project aiming to turn a 1998 Esquire article by Tom Junod about Fred Rogers, legendary host of the long-running children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001), into a movie. It took time to get the movie made because the filmmakers worked with Rogers’s family to make sure that everything felt right. In a subsequent interview, Hanks admitted he was terrified of playing Rogers, who passed away in 2003. This was an iconic figure, a man who was genuinely beloved and played such an important role in millions of American children’s upbringing. How do you play a man like that, regarded more or less like a saint? And how do you make him interesting?
A challenging assignment
In 1998, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a hard-hitting investigative reporter for Esquire who is given an assignment his editor (Christine Lahti) knows he’s going to hate – write a 400-word profile of Fred Rogers. Lloyd feels anything but inspired. What’s there to write about a guy who entertains kids and doesn’t seem to have an edge whatsoever? Lloyd recently became a father himself but has a non-existent relationship with his own dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper). They don’t talk to each other anymore, but Jerry does show up at his daughter’s wedding. Reuniting with his son only leads to a fight where both men suffer bruises.
Shortly after that, Lloyd heads to the studio where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is taped. His bruises do not go unnoticed and he finds himself trying to answer Rogers’s (Hanks) questions. Over the following days, Lloyd can’t seem to get behind the veneer of the friendly TV icon…
Hostility in the Trump era
The lauded documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) already had audiences pondering the legacy of Fred Rogers and this movie only reinforced those thoughts. There’s no need to label him a saint, but there’s something to be said for the kindness he embodied. There’s no doubt that it becomes specially relevant in the Trump era where hostility has become one of the driving forces behind how we interact, not only online. Watching Rogers appeal, in his slowly gentle way, to the best in ourselves was fascinating and Hanks matches him.
In brilliantly reconstructed scenes from the TV show, fusing original footage with meticulous recreations, the star virtually becomes Mr. Rogers, singing the unforgettable theme song while putting on his red cardigan and blue sneakers. In his encounters with Lloyd, we see how deceptively simple he made his message and approach look, but also get discreet glimpses of how he handled carrying the burden of strangers sharing their sorrows (that final shot of Rogers by the piano is both beautiful and poignant). Only an actor as skilled and beloved as Hanks could play that character so convincingly without making Mr. Rogers look ridiculous or false.
Rhys is equally good as the veteran reporter (every journalist knows somebody like him) who is incredibly good at what he does, but burdened by his cynicism and not really in touch with his own emotions. Lloyd has good reason not to want to get along with his dad, but his conversations with Rogers helps him choose a different path.
Forgiveness is an important theme here, but director Marielle Heller (who also did such a great job portraying a caustic writer in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)) knows how to prevent the movie from becoming mawkish. Instead it is superbly touching, telling us that this is no Hollywood fantasy. It is possible to forgive those who have hurt us, it is possible to be kind to others.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 2019-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Youree Henley, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub. Directed by Marielle Heller. Screenplay: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster. Cast: Tom Hanks (Fred Rogers), Matthew Rhys (Lloyd Vogel), Susan Kelechi Watson (Andrea Vogel), Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni… Christine Lahti.
Last word: “After the documentary, we wouldn’t need a biopic and I wouldn’t have made a biopic, there’s no interest for me. The two movies would make a great double feature, because the documentary does such a gorgeous job of filling in the life of Fred Rogers and telling you so much about him and putting his show and the legacy that he created in context. It probably added to the expectations and the sense of responsibility to realize that this was something where everybody feels so excited and compelled.” (Heller, Indiewire)