“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” film review

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!

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Documentary Film Review

Timely. We need Mister Rogers now more than ever, for we live in dark times. In our world of division, hate, intolerance, and self-centeredness, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, by Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary winner Morgan Neville, is a brilliant, intelligent documentary. This film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans of public television hero Fred Rogers and reminds us that we should shift focus from what divides us to loving others just the way they are and loving ourselves because we need and deserve love, compassion, and acceptance. He truly was the neighbor on and off screen that you and I wish we had next door to us. More than a mere television show for children, Mister Rogers Neighborhood ran deep–deeper than you realized growing up. Mr. Rogers tackled incredibly tough topics in simple, creative ways in order to educate children (and their parents) to exhibit love, kindness, acceptance, understanding, and safety awareness in the world. To make the world a better place, to be a positive influence, and more. Whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Fred Rogers’ life mission was to utilize the power of television to teach us how to be the best neighbor we possibly could be to the world. Discussing and depicting complex subjects for a children’s program like prejudice, racism, ethics, and learning to love and accept someone just the way he or she is, this thought-provoking public television program cuts through the pretense of this world and aims directly for your heart. “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is your honest self” (Fred Rogers).

From February 1968 to August 2001 and nearly 1000 episodes, we were invited into the living room of children’s television icon Fred Rogers. He took us on adventures into the world to learn how things are made, taught us about kindness, love, cooperation, and punctuated each episode with a trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to creatively drive home the message of theme of the day. Even if we haven’t seen an episode since we were kids, I imagine that most of us can still hum the theme song and maybe even sing some of the lyrics. His simple daily routine of putting on his zip-up cardigan and switching out his shoes made such an impression on the words that his cardigan hands in the Smithsonian Institute. Few television personalities have left such a great impression as Fred Rogers. His positive influence on and off camera affected the lives of so many people from the very young to the more established in life. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life and times of Fred Rogers during his timeless show. While you may think he was out of touch with realist–especially the reality we live in today–this documentary proves that he was well-aware of what was going on in the world and knew he had to educate, protect, and inspire children to overcome struggle and grief. Often he’d end the show with statements such as “you make the world a special place by just you being you.” The authentic decency demonstrated by Fed Rogers is so incredibly rare these days, and it’s that rare glimpse of hope that moves those who watch this documentary.

One of the most subversive moments of the documentary is when we watch part of an episode from the first season depicting King Friday the XIII building a wall to keep undesirables out. Now where have we heard that before??? Resisting the malevolent actions of the monarch, the neighborhood of Make-Believe inundates the king with messages of peace, tolerance, acceptance, and kindness. These messages inspire the king to tear down his wall to include everyone in the neighborhood. Certain so-called leaders in our states, country, and world should probably brush up on their Mister Rogers and follow King Friday’s example. Mister Rogers sentiments were not shared by many Americans during this time of civil rights unrest, but the beauty of his show was demonstrating positive progressive ideas that confronted prejudice and hate. Moments like these served as beacon of hope that the children would grow up to be loving, caring adults who desired to cooperate to build a better world. Moreover, Fred Rogers features a similar analogy later on in the series when he invites Officer Clemmons to share a foot pool with him in order to cool off in the hot weather. Perhaps this doesn’t sound radical now, but this was at a time that white Americans bucked against sharing public pools with individuals of color. Even Clemmons’ role as an officer of the law was subversive. He was hesitant at first to play the role because cops were the scariest people in his neighborhood, but he realized the importance of “children of color having a positive role model who looked like them” in the role of one who upholds the law.

The documentary also puts to rest those myths of Mister Rogers involvement in the US Military. Although we wore his zip-up cardigan regularly, it was not to cover up tattoos he got while service in the Department of Defense–he never served in the US military–but he DID serve his country for 31 years through his public television show. You spend quite a bit of time learning about the strong faith of Fred Rogers, and how it was truly the foundation upon which his show was developed. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was all set to enter seminary before he had the idea to produce his famous show. Many of the individuals interviewed during the documentary stated that even though Rogers never identified himself as a Christian, his faith and theology can be felt in his show through the lessons, games, examples, and stories. The guests from Yo Yo Ma to the show’s prop master testify to Mister Rogers’ progressive, inclusive view of Christianity that was overflowing with love and tolerance. He was proud of his faith, and often credited his Christian faith as the inspiration for the scripts he wrote for the show and the songs he composed. His beliefs were found in everything he did on and off screen. Another reverend friend of Rogers stated proudly that Rogers’ ministry through the show touched more lives and made more difference than a traditional evangelist could ever hope to do. Just goes to show it’s not how you identify yourself, but how you live your life and effect others that makes the biggest difference in the world.

Love is at the root of everything. He was doing something profound, deep, doing something that worked on multiple levels at the same time. Racism and prejudice weren’t the only weighty issues Rogers so creatively helped children work through and understand, but he also commented on other tough subjects difficult to discuss in a children’s program in a way that drives points home through kindness. Assassination, death, war, divorce, and diversity were subject matters on the show. The groundbreaking character of Officer Clemmons represented a positive role model in the law enforcement community. He was also the first recurring African-American role on a children’s program. Clemmons often commented on how incredibly encouraging Rogers was. Especially when Clemmons came out as a gay male. At first, Rogers was not sure what to do because of sponsors and even personal convictions and it took a while to talk to Clemmons about this aspect of his personal life and how it effected the show; but Clemmons stated that Rogers was extremely supportive and loved him just the way he was. Although not explicitly stated on the show, Mister Rogers–indirectly anyway–talked about accepting those who love differently than you–love is love as the popular hashtag goes. He often made it a point on the show to be proud of who you are and just the way you are. This was his way of discussing a subject that is still divisive today. But Mister Rogers was demonstrating how friends, family, and neighbors should treat one another before it became more commonplace to discuss.

When PBS was facing the loss of the $20mil funding from the US Government, Rogers testified before Senator Pastore the importance of public television. More than merely testify, he stated the lyrics to a song he wrote for the show. You can watch the testimony by clicking here. Words cannot truly capture the power of his testimony so give it a watch when you have some time. When Pastore demanded that no one else testifying read their statements, Rogers kindly put his “philosophical statement that would take 10mins to read” aside and simply spoke to the senator. He testified to his passion for educating children and contributing to healthy development and that the money spent on educational programming should be thought of as more important than violent “animated bombardment.” Understanding the inner needs of children should be at the forefront of television programming. Fred described his show to the senator as “an expression of care every day to every child to help [them] realize they [they] are unique…you’ve made this day a special day by just you being you.” The testimony is a powerful one that earned the funding for educational programming that was nearly lost.

Do yourself a favor and watch this documentary. Hopefully, it is playing at a theatre near you. Whether you grew up with the show or not, whether you can recall the last time you saw an episode or thought of Fred Rogers, this is a powerful film that is sure to inspire you. You will be changed as a result of this intelligent portrait of a man who left a timeless impression on the lives of millions by just being himself and providing an expression of care to all those who watched.