Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) sets out to write a character assassination against beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), and instead finds himself deconstructed under Rogers’ compassionate tutelage.
Who doesn’t love Fred Rogers?
Who is Fred Rogers, you say?
Who is Fred Rogers?
Fred Rogers is the beloved children’s television presenter, who hosted Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001, which aimed to encourage children to be able to deal with big emotions. Yes, I know the tremendous irony of calling him beloved when we’ve already ascertained that I hadn’t heard of him. That’s because Fred Rogers to a British audience is what Barney Harwood, or Dick & Dom are to the US: completely unknown. So I suppose that lack of initial familiarity limits the enjoyment of the film somewhat.
Much of the film riffs off this sense of old-time nostalgia, as we are treated to recreations of the set from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, complete with what I assume is a familiar theme song, as well as multiple shots of the toy-town hustle and bustle, even when not within the confines of the filmed segments. I assume that this would strike a more poignant chord with somebody who is familiar with the original, but such is the power of Tom Hank’s portrayal as the genial Fred Rogers that you feel as if you have met him before.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an adaptation of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say…Hero?”. It breaks away from the traditional biopic of a celebrity that have come in swathes in the past couple of years (Judy, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody…), by presenting the famous figure – Rogers – through a sceptic’s eyes. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who prides himself on being a “proper” journalist, is given what he considers a “puff piece” about heroes. The only hero on the list willing to have an interview with him is Fred Rogers, even though he is familiar with Vogel’s previous work, which generally results in character assassination. While Vogel is intent upon getting to the dark hidden truths behind Rogers, it turns out that there aren’t any. Instead, Vogel himself is examined by Rogers, unearthing his turbulent and fractured relationship with his estranged father (Chris Cooper, a fictional invention for this narrative) and the sceptic lens through which he lives his life. What Vogel finds in Rogers is somebody entirely genuine and utterly simplistic in their view of the world. Rogers has a brilliant quality of breaking life down to its simplest elements, to allow for the dealing of the trickier emotions that Vogel, in particular, struggles with. Throughout many simple and captivating conversations during the film, we see Vogel’s own viewpoint change as he learns to heal and forgive.
Heart warming and optimistic, this film is a delight from start to finish. With brilliant performances by both Rhys and Hanks, what could have been saccharine or over-sentimental is instead played as nuanced and entirely genuine. Casting Hanks, largely viewed as the most beloved actor in Hollywood, as a hugely beloved television presenter could not be more inspired, and he delivers an intentionally subdued and measured performance here, as the comforting and calm Rogers. The ability that Rogers shows in diffusing the more erratic and confrontational Vogel is captivating to watch, as Rogers strives to help and heal him. The heartfelt and earnest sentiments that are delivered through this film, of forgiveness, of acceptance and of dealing with big issues are incredibly relevant, even now, and seeing them spoken about with two men on the screen, especially in a culture which conditions men to repress their emotions, is incredibly powerful. We could all use a Fred Rogers, today and every other day of our lives.