It’s rare to get emotional at the beginning of a movie but I suppose seeing an old friend again can have that effect. And when that friend is being portrayed by one of Hollywood’s most talented and lovable actors, well, the heart runneth over. The kindness and decency embodied by the friendly neighbor we’ve known as Mister Rogers is imprinted on every frame of Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. For those, like me, who return to his insightful advice to “look for the helpers” during times of strife, this movie feels like a warm and comforting embrace.
Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say…Hero?” written by Tom Junod in 1998, the plot of Heller’s biographical drama is ingeniously structured like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, complete with colorful transitions from the land of make-believe. Kicking things off in that land of learning we know so well gives Tom Hanks the chance to immediately calm any concerns that our familiarity with him will detract from his performance. I’m happy to report that from the moment he zips up the famous sweater and laces up his shoes, while singing the tune we know by heart, Tom Hanks is Fred Rogers.
In his article, Junod describes a number of Fred Rogers’ traits in specific and beautiful detail, including reference to his “sly voice that sounds adult to the ears of children and childish to the ears of adults.” By copying Fred’s gentle way of speaking and carrying himself, Hanks convincingly transforms into the beloved icon, immersing and guiding us through a story that, surprisingly, focuses very little on him. As our amiable host, Mister Rogers introduces us to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist adjusting to fatherhood while confronting a turbulent past with his own estranged father (Chris Cooper). At the same time, a new assignment from his editor (played by Christine Lahti, who I’m always thrilled to see) requires he write a profile on the world’s nicest human being – a job he approaches with no small amount of cynicism. Having a reputation for being hard on his subjects, Lloyd hopes to uncover the darker side of this man the world has placed on a saintly pedestal. What he finds, instead, is a welcome and lasting friendship with a man who is genuinely trying each day to be a better person than he was the day before. A mission most strikingly evident in his encounters and attentive exchanges with people on the streets, in the subway, and, most importantly, in his prayers every night.
Every question Lloyd asks Fred Rogers is met with a more resonant retort, leading him quite unexpectedly down a path of healing and self-discovery. With the focus on Rhys’ character, it’s clear that his struggle to believe that this man could possibly be as goodhearted and generous as he presents himself to be is designed to make us question our own view of the world. As a result, every laugh that erupts from the audience as Lloyd is repeatedly shocked by the good deeds being done by his subject is triggered by our own doubt that such kindness could ever exist in a place that often feels so broken. By putting the audience in Lloyd Vogel’s shoes, Heller and her team have created a warm and loving tribute to the man who has taught us since we were children. A man whose lessons and words of wisdom are still there when we need them, ever so politely encouraging us to be better than we were yesterday.
There’s a significant sequence in the movie where Mister Rogers invites each member of the audience to participate in a deeply moving and introspective moment. It’s a moment only he could dream up, let alone orchestrate in such a profound and meaningful way, and it’s the one you’ll carry in your heart as you leave. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t the kind of biopic that makes any scathing attempts to reveal the skeletons in Mister Rogers’ closet. Instead, it's focused purely on the fact that he sought to make the world a better place by dedicating every second of his life to making children more capable, confident, better people. Every lesson he imparted was a gift he gave freely with the purest and best of intentions, and the enduring impact of his kindness is still resonating. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gifts us not only one more visit with our friend Mister Rogers, but the humbling realization that even though we're all grown up we can still benefit from a trip to the old neighborhood.