By John Hanlon
The lead character in the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wants to find something wrong with Mr. Rogers. A deep secret. A hidden agenda. A truth behind the façade he believes Fred Rogers presents to the world on his children’s television show.
As a journalist known for his tough pieces, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) wants to expose who Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) truly is. The writer’s assignment though wasn't about exposing Mr. Rogers. Esquire magazine simply wanted a short piece (approximately 200 words) on Mr. Rogers being a hero. Vogel had a different idea but then he met Mr. Rogers.
Instead of putting the beloved children’s host at center stage in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster focuses on Mr. Rogers as a secondary figure. He isn’t a lost soul trying to find his way in the world. He’s the guide that helps other people find direction.
The plot was inspired by an article that journalist Tom Junod wrote about Mr. Rogers. The journalist’s name was changed and so were many of the details but the crux of the story remains the same.
In the film, Vogel — a jaded journalist with a wife and baby at home — travels to interview Mr. Rogers during a time of great reflection in his life. Vogel’s estranged father (Chris Cooper) wants to be in the journalist’s life but that relationship is fraught with pain and heartache. As Vogel studies and interviews the genteel Mr. Rogers, he reflects more on his relationships — including the one with his father — and his own past.
Although the film's marketing suggests a hopeful tone and Mr. Rogers is a positive figure in the story, there’s a lot of heartbreak in the movie. Director Marielle Heller doesn’t shy away from Vogel’s pain and the reasons behind it. He has good reason to question his father’s motives and it’s easy to see why the father and son drifted apart. Even when the duo converse during a scene, there’s a lot left unsaid and Heller uses that complicated dynamic to paint a bleak but distinct portrait of their relationship.
Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, is portrayed as a kind-hearted and loving figure who brings a hopeful idealism into Vogel’s life. However, Heller doesn’t settle for painting the host as an angelic figure. The character — powerfully captured by Hanks — has complicated relationships and readily admits that he has a temper.
The character understands his own limitations but tries mightily to overcome them so he can bring something genuinely good into the world.
Some will likely be disappointed that Mr. Rogers — the beloved children’s host— isn’t the main character here and his life story would undeniably make for a compelling straightforward film. What Heller does though is something that the man himself would likely appreciate. She makes a movie not about “a hero.” She makes it about the way that a hero’s actions — his goodness, his positivity and his gentle spirit — can lift other people up. In that way, she shakes up the traditional biopic and creates something with its own unique power.
There are countless people that were inspired by Mr. Rogers that never met him in person. They only saw him on the television screen. In the film, the figure who is inspired by him is a journalist who momentarily arrived on Mr. Roger’s doorstep.
Although the movie does have its strange moments (a brief scene showing Vogel transported into the world of make-believe comes to mind), it’s a solid film that offers a positive and uplifting message about heroes and how they don’t need super powers — or even great acts of courage — to help change people’s lives.