How can you fault a man who believed in the goodness of mankind and preached a simple message without preaching it that we are all special in our own way?
You can’t. But that is who Fred Rogers was. The beloved man who hosted the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program for more than 33 years simply wanted to help people realize, especially children, that we should love our neighbor as we would love ourselves. If this sounds Biblical to you that’s because it is.
Interest in Rogers and his message seems to be increasing. With the world becoming a darker and darker place each and every day, the former children’s television host’s message of kindness and compassion is seen more and more as a breath of fresh air. In the last 18 months, the former ordained Presbyterian minister has been the subject of a compelling documentary (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and now a full-length motion picture, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood makes its debut.
Starring Tom Hanks in an Oscar-worthy performance as Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also features Matthew Rhys (The Post) in an equally impressive role as a journalist assigned to interview the most beloved television personality in American history. Not a biopic, this innovative movie of substance and sincerity is directed with a graceful touch by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?).
THE MOVIE IN A MINUTE
Assigned to write a 400-word puff piece celebrating American heroes, Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is sent to Pittsburgh to interview iconic children’s television host Fred Rogers (Hanks). Just wanting to get in, get out, and go home, Vogel is repeatedly caught off guard by Rogers’ decency, openness, and forgiving nature. This is hard for the emotionally jaded journalist to digest as he has battled hatred and unforgiveness toward his estranged father for decades. Despite his best investigative journalism techniques Vogel seems to keep bumping up against Rogers’ extreme positivity. But in a painstaking and loving way, Rogers helps the seemingly broken Vogel to see the inherent good in his situation.
THE GOOD AND BAD OF A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
From the movie’s opening scene where we find him recreating the famous show open from Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Hanks is in complete command of portraying the gentle and endearingly kind Fred Rogers. While some might argue that they are watching the two-time Oscar winner do a spot-on impression of this American icon, Hanks quickly puts that notion to rest. His mannerisms, physical posture, and even the cadence of his voice is precise and all-encompassing. Not just anyone could play this role, but Hanks, an American icon in his own right, tackles the role with aplomb. An Oscar-worthy performance? You bet.
More understated but equally as notable is Rhys. His role as Lloyd Vogel is loosely based on Tom Junod, the journalist who wrote the 1998 Esquire Magazine article on Rogers. While audiences will remember A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as the Mister Rogers movie, the film is actually about this troubled magazine writer trying to make amends with a father whose actions have been torturing his psyche for the majority of his adult life. From the opening scene where we find his nose bloodied from a fist fight with his father through his journey toward forgiveness, Rhys effectively embodies all the emotions of a child struggling to reconcile old wounds that never seem to heal.
Chris Cooper (Adaptation) is excellent in his role as Vogel’s inappropriate, clueless father who can’t seem to figure out why his son won’t forgive him for his selfish past. Cooper is equal parts obnoxious and endearing as he navigates the emotional complexities of trying to rebuild a long since lapsed relationship with his son.
The prospect of directing a movie about such a beloved figure is obviously a dauting one, but Heller masterfully weaves together all the right strands of who Fred Rogers was to capture the hearts of audiences all over again. Bearing testament to this are several scenes that will speak mightily to faith-based audiences: in one, Rogers literally takes a one-minute moment of silence in the film to allow viewers to reflect upon all the people who love them. In the other, he kneels beside his bed and prays for every single person that he has ever met asking that God would help them to become kinder, more forgiving people.
The only negative that can be found in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s 108 minutes is a somewhat bizarre fantasy dream sequence involving the cast, characters, and puppets on the set of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. While benign to the movie’s ultimate message, it just seems out of context and doesn’t move the story forward.
IN THE END
Not a faith-based movie in the traditional sense, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood contains many bedrock principles found in the Bible. Of course, this is not a difficult concept to comprehend when you consider who the subject matter is. Fred Rogers demonstrated a quiet nobility based on his hunger for societal kindness, compassion, and always trying to see the best in someone. That is who he was and who we all can be … if we just work a little harder at it. This movie is a must see.