If you had a childhood in America over the last fifty years, there’s a good chance Fred Rogers was a part of it. Even for those of us who didn’t watch his show often as kids — and I suspect that we’re a minority — “Mr. Rogers” was a beloved icon of gentleness and kindness in an increasing frenetic childrens-television landscape. His theme song defined his persona, which was an authentic if purposeful representation of the man himself. Fred Rogers was so distinctive, influential, and meaningful in this era that it seems curious in retrospect that no one has attempted to tell his story before now [see update below].
Tom Hanks’ new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood fills that gap, but in an odd manner. Instead of telling the story of Fred Rogers more directly and prosaically, the film instead tells us a fictionalized story of the Esquire journalist whose life was changed in his interview of Rogers. “Lloyd Vogel” (Matthew Rhys) stands in for Tom Junod, whose 1998 profile of the man who became his friendinspired the screenplay.
This oblique approach is off-putting at first, especially due to the somewhat melodramatic construct of Vogel’s fictional life. Vogel has profound daddy issues, brought to life by an excellent performance of dissipation and regret by Chris Cooper, but at times it feels as though it was specifically constructed to wring the most tears and pathos out of the audience. For the first half of the film, one wonders whether we’re getting more of the fictional Vogel’s life story than of Rogers’ real story — and in fact we are, but it does pay off by giving us an in-depth character study of Rogers and what drove him in his mission of kindness.
This oblique approach is somewhat unusual for traditional bio-pics, but it does fall into one Hollywood tradition — biblical films about Christ. Risen is the best modern example of this, using a peripheral or fictional character to tell the story of the Messiah or a saint. Rogers doesn’t fall into either category — his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) forcefully and explicitly rejects the latter when Vogel suggests it — but he comes close. Through Vogel, we get a chance to see why this relentlessly gentle man chose this mission and what he intended to do with it, which is to bring people of all ages to prayer in one fashion or another. That message, and the fact that kindness and gentleness were purposeful choices by Rogers, comes through very clearly, even when we see some hints of struggle by Rogers in carrying out his mission.
Needless to say, bringing Fred Rogers to life in a three-dimensional characterization is tough to do without inadvertently tipping over into either satire or critical commentary. Hanks pulls it off masterfully, perhaps the only actor who could do that balancing act. Rhys is also excellent as Vogel, helped along by a slightly over-the-top parallel personal story. The supporting cast is universally excellent as well, which includes well-known actors such as Christine Lahti, Enrico Colantoni, Maddie Corman, and Wendy Makkena, whose Sister Act roots are completely indistinguishable here. Susan Kelechi Watson is particularly good as Vogel’s wife.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might be a little short on Rogers’ resumé and biography — we never even see his sons, although they come up in conversation — but it comes as close to nailing his life and mission as we can hope. It’s an intimate film, uncomfortably so at times, and even its manipulations are ultimately forgivable thanks to the performances of the cast and the way in which it unlocks Rogers’ character. It may not require a big screen to watch this story unfold, but we have so few opportunities to see affirmations of gentleness and kindness on screen that it’s well worth watching this top-shelf effort in the theaters.
And who knows? If this draws enough viewers, maybe a few more such films might find their way into our neighborhoods in the future. That would indeed be a fitting tribute to Fred Rogers.
On the Hot Air scale, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gets a 5:
5 – Full price ticket
4 – Matinee only
3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
1 – Avoid at all costs
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is rated PG, presumably for one instance of light violence and perhaps some language as well. I would have no trouble watching this with either of my granddaughters, especially with Hanks as Rogers contextualizing it in the moment.
Addendum: I linked it above, but I’ll link Junod’s original profile of Rogers again here, because it is well worth reading. Junod also gave Esquire an interview about the film, which distinguishes the fictional Vogel’s story from his own — but reinforces how Rogers became his friend, the only interview subject of Junod’s to do so. Be sure to read them both.
Update: I meant that I’m surprised no one’s tried a bio-pic of Rogers before now, but of course there was the highly praised documentary last year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I have not yet had a chance to see that, but it’s on my list for this month. Thanks to Twitter follower Russell Michaels for the heads-up on my ambiguity.