Fred Rogers — aka Mister Rogers — has been a constant source of inspiration for almost 60 years, even past his death in 2003. The host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired in one form or another from 1968 to 2001, was known for being able to connect with anybody, including adults who had gotten disaffected with the world at large.
That unique ability is the focus of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, an unusual biopic in that Rogers (Tom Hanks) plays a supporting role in his own movie. The lead character instead is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist working for Esquire magazine who, in 1998, is assigned to write a 400-word blurb on Rogers for their issue on heroes.
Cynical at heart, in part due to a rough relationship with his own father (Chris Cooper), Vogel approaches the assignment with a closed mind. However, the unsurpassed openness of Rogers softens his hard heart, and what was supposed to be a quick assignment turns into an odyssey in which Vogel interviews Rogers multiple times.
Directed by Marianne Heller and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, the film is structured in such a way that is manipulative without ever feeling manipulative. Interstitials of miniature sets designed to look like the ones on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are used for multiple transitions, evoking nostalgia and childlike wonder. But most of all, Vogel, and by extension the audience, is slowly but surely led to understand, and be influenced by, the innate goodness of Rogers.
That’s not to say he’s perfect, and Hanks as Rogers says as much in the film. But he has a capacity for empathy and for evoking empathy from others that is unparalleled. The film explores this inimitable gift on multiple fronts, including in the interviews, in Vogel’s relationship with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and newborn son, and in Vogel’s reconnection with his father. Each of them is as affecting as the next, always going right up to the edge of hokeyness before settling back into a zone of balance.
After winning back-to-back best actor Oscars 25 years ago, it feels like we take Hanks’ acting ability for granted. He’s as good he’s ever been as Rogers despite the inherent lack of showiness of the role. Few other actors could be as believable as he is, or pull off the mannerisms of a person who just wanted people to be kind to one another. Rhys, Watson, and Cooper are also great, especially when they face off in tension-filled scenes.
Following last year’s stellar documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Mister Rogers is having quite the moment in Hollywood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just as good as that film, paying tribute to Rogers in an understated and heartfelt way that he would surely appreciate.