Tom Hanks fills the loafers of childhood’s kindest saint in Marielle Heller’s case study of Mr. Rogers’ impact.
We live in cynical times — rampant inequality, political division, and the looming specter of climate change make it easy to fall into despair, both about our fellow man and about the world. But for an entire generation of kids, Fred Rogers allowed us to grow up thinking there was a better way. Feeling angry? Find a healthy outlet. Feeling inadequate? Remember that you’re the only one out there like you, and that’s a wonderful thing.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on our culture and sense of personal identity, and harder still not to wish he was around right now to help heal an angry, frightened country. Even in his day, his gentleness and nonthreatening encouragement felt positively radical. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes pretty darn close to capturing his legacy – not by profiling the man himself, but capturing the effect his example has on all of us.
Based loosely on Rogers’ real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod (highlighted and begun by Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of the man, “Can You Say… Hero?”), Beautiful Day zags where most awards-friendly biopics zig. Rather than make Rogers the main character, Marielle Heller‘s film follows Junod stand-in Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, The Americans), a cynical, irascible writer with a short temper and a dim view of the world. So we learn in the opening minutes of the film, a pitch-perfect recreation of the twee, xylophone-backed theme of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) changes into his iconic red cardigan before telling us the tale of Vogel’s woes.
You see, much of Beautiful Day takes the shape of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and all its friendly warmth, the story of Vogel effectively turning into one of the show’s many segments in which Mr. Rogers showed us how newspapers were made, or how an orchestra works. While Vogel’s world is grimy, moodily lit, and realistic, Heller and DP Jody Lee Lipes artfully contrast that with establishing shots and transitions that evoke the playground aesthetic of Mr. Rogers’ program, model planes flying from one scale-model city to another. It’s a charming contrast, and more than a little effective: it plays less as attention-grabbing nostalgia and more a thematic collision of Vogel’s skepticism with Rogers’ hopeful sunniness. And most helpfully, these affectations aid in spicing up what is, at its core, an exceedingly conventional story of helping another broken white dude find himself.
But of course, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script cares little about delving into Mr. Rogers’ life story, and so much the better. After all, his life was covered in greater focus in last year’s lovely doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As kids, we didn’t experience those sides of Rogers: we just knew him as the helper, the guide through the big, scary world of adulthood. Here, he serves that purpose for Vogel, who serves as a nifty stand-in for the film’s adult audience, someone who maybe grew up on his show, but beaten down by the unbearable weight of a life that didn’t turn out to be like the Land of Make-Believe. He’s a new dad, which brings to the fore a new set of pressures, not just from the strain his work puts on his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), but from the fear that he’ll fail his child the way his alcoholic, deadbeat dad (Chris Cooper) did him. And just in time, his dad comes back into the picture, hoping for a forgiveness Vogel is less than ready to give.
But then he’s tasked with doing a profile on Rogers (“400 words. Be nice,” warns his editor (Christine Lahti)), and he flies to Philly to figure out whether the preternaturally-kind Rogers is the real deal. What Vogel learns, of course, is that he is, and being in such sheer proximity to a man so committed to kindness and guilelessness has its own curious effects on him and his own capacity for forgiveness, both to others and to himself. While Hanks is obviously the showstopper here (and justifiably so), Rhys’ contributions can’t be underestimated, infusing Vogel with a sadsack fragility necessary to make his experience with Rogers so transformative.
Beautiful Day zags where most awards-friendly biopics zig.
And what about Hanks? Well, you almost don’t need anyone to tell you why Hanks is the perfect person to play Rogers: they both occupy similar spaces in the pop-cultural consciousness, Hanks having spent the last couple of decades as America’s Dad. Like the best depictions of iconic cultural figures, Hanks’ take on Rogers is less imitation than it is evocation: his clipped, soft line delivery suggests Rogers’ non-threatening demeanor without disappearing Hanks completely. There’s a low-level field of magic whenever Rogers is around, as if being in his mere presence brightens your day. (One moment in which he asks a room full of people — and by extension, the audience — to take a minute of silence to think about someone who has helped them, is a particularly powerful example of the man’s curious power.)
Glimpses of Rogers’ imperfections slip through on occasion: his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) informs Vogel of the sheer amount of work it takes to maintain that sense of positivity, and his ability to turn Vogel’s interview questions around on him sometimes feels like an evasion. But these notes only make him seem more godlike: if he is human like the rest of us, the discipline it must take to be Mr. Rogers is nothing short of miraculous.
But as Heller’s film indicates, we don’t have to all be as perfect as Mr. Rogers: few people can be, not even the man himself. All we have to do is be just a little bit better than we were yesterday, and keep working towards it. As a continuation of Rogers’ ethos, and a necessary update for an adult audience grasping even more desperately for that sense of hope, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood excels mightily. Times are scary and uncertain, and Mr. Rogers isn’t around anymore; we have to carry on in his stead, making friends and accepting ourselves as best we can. Heller’s film is a beautiful reminder of that.