Fred Rogers…what could I say about him that many people haven’t already said? The man was a legend, a children’s television icon who taught a world about both the highs and the lows of life and helped shape and protect public access television for decades while serving as the star of the series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. In the recent years filled with division and strife in society Rogers has become even more popular, even after his death in 2003, as many look back on his simple perspectives of the world as making him one of the best of us. These perspectives made him the subject of an Esquire article in 1998 called “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod who wrote the piece after meeting and seeing Mr. Rogers in action, something he said changed his perspective on life. The article is featured in the book “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Neighborly Words of Wisdom from Mister Rogers” which lends its name to a new movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, where Junod is traded out for a fictional version of himself named Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, who deals with the grief of reconnecting with his absent father while getting unexpected help from Rogers himself, played by Tom Hanks. In the right hands this film had the potential to be one of THE most important feel good movies of 2019. Does it fit that bill? Let’s take a closer look in my review of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”.
One thing that needs to be mentioned to anyone going into this movie is that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not, at least in the traditional sense, a biopic of Mr. Rogers. In fact, the film might disappoint some people initially by just how little of Mr. Rogers we see compared to other characters, but what truly makes this a great tribute to a great man is that it uses another person’s story as a way to represent just how impactful and compassionate Rogers was as a human being. Most of the film actually revolves around Lloyd Vogel, a heavily fictionalized stand-in for Esquire writer Tom Junod who requested his name and likeness not be used due to the historical inaccuracies of his own personal story in the film. The movie sees Vogel’s struggling with reconnecting with his absentee father with that anger and resentment boiling over into his personal life just at the right time, when he is about to interview the man who would go on to help change his perspective, the one and only Mr. Rogers. The narrative structure presents the story as if it’s part of an episode of Rogers’ television show with Rogers hoping to teach us, the viewers, a lesson for our own lives about forgiveness and letting go in the same way he taught us about so many harsh and pleasant realities as children.
That right there is the magic of this film. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not about seeing Mr. Rogers life, it’s about seeing who Mr. Rogers was. Rogers is played absolutely perfectly by Tom Hanks who not only looks the part but captures Rogers soft-spoken nature and subtleties in the way only an expert performer like Hanks could ever accomplish. It’s a delightfully understated performance that does more than enough to evoke what made Rogers so great. We do learn about who Mr. Rogers was as a person outside of his television persona and get some great insight into how Rogers dealt with being shouldered with the responsibility of helping people through their issues while also managing his own faults and demons in a healthy way. We are shown a man who might seem perfect on the television screen but has to deal with a lock of mocking and humorous jabs at his personality quirks and is far from perfect. he’s just figured out how to get around all that and find peace with it. The beauty here is that the way Rogers looks at life and tries to help Vogel cope make him look awkward and even a bit creepy until you realize WHY he comes off that way. Being happy and positive in the face of tragedy and pain is a strange thing for our society and that’s what made Rogers so special, the fact that he can smile in spite of the harsh realities of the world around him. Hanks and Rhys do a spectacular job establishing and building the relationship and chemistry between their characters and it is very believable to see Vogel initially skeptical and dismissive of Rogers but soon learn to look deeper into what Rogers is trying to show him.
It’s because of this relationship and dynamic that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” rises above what is an all too familiar narrative for Vogel. A writer has daddy issues…sounds like the ultimate drama film cliché right? But the way this movie handles it and the honestly injected into the relationships and the main character’s emotional struggle make it so easy, and heartbreaking, to identify with Vogel’s pain. Rogers is here to help give us, and Vogel, a new perspective and before we know it, we’re learning about empathy, anger, forgiveness, acceptance, understanding and what it means to be human. It truly feels like we’re watching the show that taught us so much all over again which speaks to just how memorable and lasting an impression Rogers and his approach to life and learning left on us as people. We, as adults, are learning lessons the same way we used to learn them from Rogers show and it’s phenomenal.
The film is made all the better and its themes all the more effective by patient filmmaking and a few artistic touches that help the audience immerse themselves in the story being told. One neat touch is when Vogel starts to lose control of his emotions a high pitched noise is injected into the scene to put the audience on edge and make us feel the same rising discomfort as Vogel. There’s also some fun fourth wall breaking moments that occasionally wink at the audience acknowledging what we already know, we’re learning about ourselves through Vogel. One of my favorite scenes involves Rogers having Vogel be silent with him for a solid minute, which plays out as a true minute in movie time, in order to teach him a lesson. I won’t go too deep into the complexities of this scene but it’s one of the most effective silent moments put to film. Rogers eventually looks at the audience and this one moment gave me chills as I realized what was happening. The whole theater was quiet, and we were all reflecting on the same thing Vogel was instructed to think about. Mr. Rogers was teaching us all a lesson even if it wasn’t the real Mr. Rogers. It’s moments like this that not only speak to how effectively this movie was written and directed but how well it was acted and how perfectly it does justice to Rogers and his unique methods of enlightenment for everyone he meant, young or old.
We rarely get movies like this anymore. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is one of the year’s best dramas and a very important movie that takes an iconic figure of positivity and reminds us what made this man so special as well as what makes us all special and human. I found myself completely invested in the drama and the personal struggle of Vogel and what Rogers was trying to teach. It’s thanks to great writing and direction and some impeccable acting especially on the part of Hanks that this movie works so well to capture everything that made Mr. Rogers and his perspective so great and unique. By the end of the movie you’ll want to change your life, you’ll want to apply the lessons being presented in the film and it’s not even the real Mr. Rogers who is teaching us these lessons which says something about how perfectly this movie replicates the man and his unique ability to understand and touch people from the heart. In a world where everyone is out for themselves and people seem to have forgotten the value of emotions, forgiveness, understanding and love “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” uses a touching story and the likeness of a great man to remind us just how important it is to feel and to accept those feelings and, possibly most importantly, that it’s okay to ask for help. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a heartwarming, effective masterpiece that NEEDS to be seen and experienced especially for fans of its legendary subject.