Outstanding motion picture that celebrates the power of kindness in a real tangible way. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as the skeptical journalist Lloyd Vogel. While you may think that this is a movie about the beloved children’s television host, Mister Rogers is a supporting character in this move that is truly about Lloyd Vogel’s personal journey through grief, forgiveness, and learning kindness. It’s a portrait about being human, and all the struggles and obstacles that come with it. Perhaps there has been no greater (non-documentary/bio pic) motion picture that has so accurately captured the human kindness at its best. Mister Rogers was not only an influential children’s television host, but he left a powerful legacy for everyone. And as the film points out, he was not a saint. He struggled with some of the same things that many of us struggle with, but he knew how to work at overcoming those negative feelings, thoughts, and reactions. Didn’t come naturally, he has to work at it just like you and I have to every day. What this film and last year’s No.1 documentary (IMO) Won’t You Be My Neighbor? have in common is just how genuine, how authentic Fred Rogers was. The man in front of the camera was the man behind the camera and at home. He never saw himself as playing a character on TV, he was himself. His almost uncanny emotional intelligence and ability to counsel the young and old alike is incredibly consistent. And it’s that consistency on and off camera that truly testifies to his heart and the legacy he left behind. Based on the real article in Esquire Magazine titles “Can You Say…Hero” by Tom Junod, this film can be categorized as historical fiction because the background is incredibly real but the foreground story is a fictionalized account based on the real-life interview and relationship between once-skeptical journalist Junod and Fred Rogers. Just as Mister Rogers would have wanted it, this isn’t a movie about him, it’s a movie about one of his neighbors and friends.
A journalist’s life is enriched by friendship when he takes on an assignment profiling Fred Rogers. Based on the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and television star Fred Rogers.
Bring tissues! You are going to need them because this movie will undoubtedly touch you. And not just if you grew up (like I did) watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood on PBS. Even those who have no frame of reference beyond knowing his name will be touched. That was certainly the case with the friend that went with me to see this (and then Frozen II). He told me going into the movie that he has no idea who Mister Rogers was, but I assured him that he would enjoy the film. Occasionally, I would look over at him to see if he was an emotionally invested in the film as I was, and I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t until after the movie ended, and I was writing a tweet, that he told me how impacted he was by the film. That’s a powerful statement since this could have so easily been a film that connected best with those whom watched the show and others may have missed the emotional connection. I chalk that up to the timeless message of kindness, forgiveness, and emotional candidness of Mister Rogers. As important as his message was during the run of his show, it seems that it is needed even more greatly today in the tumultuous climate we now live in. Albeit fictional character, each of us either is currently or has been a Lloyd Vogel, hence why his character is highly relatable to general audiences. The help Mister Rogers provides Vogel transcends the screen into our own minds and hearts.
The film opens with a brilliant 4:3 recreation of the opening of Mister Rogers Neighborhood with Hanks in the title role. From the gentle piano music, camera sweeping over the miniature neighborhood, traffic light, and Mister Rogers opening his door to us with the iconic song “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine, could you be mine…” You may even find yourself singing along with Fred Rogers. I absolutely love how much this film ostensibly feels like a feature length episode of the beloved show. It begins and ends with a throwback to his brilliant show. The spirit of the television show can be felt throughout this film. I greatly appreciated the miniature recreations of “the neighborhood,” as well as New York City including Vogel’s neighborhood, Pittsburgh, and Vogel’s father’s neighborhood. Instead of showing us establishing shots of these places, Marielle Heller chose to use the same techniques employed by the set builders and production designers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. And the wooden and cardboard miniature buildings, electric trolly, and planes suspended by (keyed out) dowel rods remind us of a simpler time when story and message were the most important parts of a picture. Using these models was an excellent way to transition from location to location.
While Mister Rogers Neighborhood favorites like Picture Picture, the trolly, Mr. McFeely, and the characters of the Land of Make Believe are all in it, none of these elements seek to steal the screen from the central character of Lloyd Vogel. He remains our central character for the entire time, because–quite simply–the film is about him, not Mister Rogers and his neighborhood of friends. Vogel has never forgiven his father for being a drunkard and philanderer; furthermore, he holds a strong disdain if not hatred for his father for leaving him, his sister, and their sick mother. While his father was out having an affair, Llyod’s mother died in the hospital. For these reasons, Llyod has a lot of emotional baggage that includes a general distrust for anyone whom is supposed to be a “good guy.” After receiving as assignment to profile Fred Rogers instead of his usual hard hitting, provocative, investigative pieces, Llyod goes into the cheerful WQED PBS studio in Pittsburgh with the intention to uncover Mister Rogers dark side and skeletons in the closet. It’s no spoiler to know that truthfully Fred Rogers did not have any buried scandals. He was the man you saw on screen. Lloyd is profoundly impacted by Fred’s authenticity and genuine desire to help people deal with their feelings. There are many moments that the table is turned and Fred becomes the interviewer and asks Lloyd some hard questions that initially upset Lloyd. It’s through Fred’s kind persistence and non-judgmental attitude that he breaks through to Lloyd in a way that Lloyd can do that hardest thing he’s ever done: forgive his father. It’s a real testament to those who may be carrying heavy burdens of grief, unforgiveness, or many other negative emotions, and how we can grow to deal with them and overcome to develop as a human being who can then help others. What we have here is a powerful, personal redemption story.
Tom Hanks was born to play Fred Rogers. Simple as that. Much like Mister Rogers, Tom Hanks also has the demonstrable reputation of being the nicest guy in Hollywood whom cares deeply for his family, friends, and fans. He’s even known to regularly help out on set between takes. There are literally dozens of stories of Hanks helping the grip guys, production assistants, and other below the line people on set. I cannot think of anyone else who could’ve played Fred Rogers more perfectly. Hanks performance successfully portrays Rogers as a real person whom, for all the wonderful things Rogers says and does, is–to paraphrase Roger’s wife–“an ordinary sinner just like everyone else…he just works diligently to overcome his vices.” This is one of Hanks best peformances because of how much he transformed into Fred Rogers in a way that you could almost swear that you were watching Mister Rogers on screen. Hanks and Renee Zellweger (in Judy) have both given us the best performances this year.
This movie challenges us to become better humans, whom care for those around us by listening, empathizing, and making the intentional decisions that will help us grow and develop. The movie also reminds me that I should pray for people by name every day. To be honest, that isn’t something that I do regularly. Another powerful line in the movie comes as Fred responds to Vogel in an initial interview question “what is the most important thing in the world to you?” And Fred responds with “…for instance the most important thing in the world to me is talking to Lloyd Vogel right now.” That line reminded me that when I am with my friends or family (or anyone for the matter), the most important thing in the world to me should be the conversation that I am having at that very moment. That’s going to be a hard one for me since I am constantly tweeting or “multitasking.” The life and legacy of Fred Rogers makes me want to be a better person. If Lloyd can change, then so can I.
Do not miss out on one of the most powerful motion pictures of the year. Definitely make it a part of your Thanksgiving next week, or even better, see it this weekend!
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!