The fact that the biographical drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood exists shows just how hungry we are for what the man at its center represented. Fred Rogers, or Mr. Rogers, as the public knew him, radiated kindness and understanding, making him and the show that made him famous, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a beloved staple for generations of viewers. A Beautiful Day not only has to live up to his legacy, but the documentary that was released to much acclaim barely a year ago, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Tom Hanks bears only a slight resemblance at best to the man he’s playing, but he was born to play this role nevertheless. Hanks is one of the most popular actors working today, yet his almost total lack of controversy makes him the best kind of safe bet. His general lack of scenery-chewing allows his skill to shine in a quieter, yet still deeply satisfying fashion. Showy he’s not, but his power is impossible to deny in films as wide-ranging as Splash and Cast Away. It makes him the perfect actor to not just play Fred Rogers, but somehow replicate what his presence meant.
So no pressure right? You wouldn’t think so, not with the way director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster rise to the challenge. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins on the set of the show itself, where Hanks quickly proves irresistible as he slips effortlessly into the role, ritual sweater and sneaker changes and all. He speaks of “his friend Lloyd,” aka Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a fictionalized version of journalist Tom Junod, who wrote the Esquire article the film is based on and found his life transformed by his time with Mr. Rogers.
As Hanks shows us a picture of Lloyd looking a bit the worse for wear, he speaks of how someone “has hurt Lloyd, and not just on his face.” It’s a humorous take on what’s to come, but things get serious when Mr. Rogers switches it up by speaking directly to us about something even the best of us can struggle with – forgiveness. Or as Hanks puts is, a “decision we make to release the feelings of anger we have.” Love makes everything, but especially forgiveness, more complicated, and we learn that Lloyd has love to spare, both for his infant son, his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). He also has a great deal of anger towards his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), which makes him less than receptive to Jerry’s attempts to make amends.
When Lloyd is told by his editor to write a short profile on Mr. Rogers, he at first reacts with cynical scorn about having to write a “puff piece.” But how long can anyone hold on to such skepticism around someone like Mr. Rogers? Lloyd puts up his best efforts, and it’s not entirely difficult to see why. Someone who has seen much of the worst in people would be slow to believe that such sincerity could exist, and it’s not always easy for those who work for the guy. As Lloyd gets to the set, Fred has been chatting up a kid for way longer than his alotted time, prompted a crew member to dryly ask, “We can’t fire him, can we?”
As Lloyd gradually forms a friendship with his interviewee, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood deftly sidesteps the schmaltz to give us a genuinely moving portrait of sincerity. Nor does it skimp on the very real darkness present in every human being, including Rogers himself. As his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) puts it, her husband works every day to be who he is. “If you think of him as a saint, his way of being is unattainable,” she explains. Heller also pays tribute to the show itself, even using sequences displaying how magazines like the one Lloyd writes for are made, and even a hallucination where Lloyd finds himself on the set itself, finally able to express the pain he’s been feeling for years.
Similarly, the screening I attended was full of press and industry types who are typically the epitome of tough sells. Yet there were sniffing and tears at multiple moments, and when Hanks at one point asks for a minute of silence in a scene at a restaurant, not only do the other patrons oblige him, the entire theater did as well. Such a reaction most likely requires the heavy fictionalizing the movie employs, yet it’s impossible to deny the heavy truths and heartfelt acknowledgment of just how difficult it can be to live so gently in the now retro environment of 1998. Such discussions are needed even more in a time when putting each other down seems to be rewarded at the highest levels.