A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

When Fred Rogers, better known to millions around the world as Mister Rogers, first asked television audiences "Won't you be my neighbor?", no one could have anticipated the way he would touch the lives of so many viewers. His beloved children's program Mister Rogers Neighborhood would run on PBS for over 30 years while revolutionizing its genre through the gentle and intelligent nature that Rogers addressed children, possessing a calm and caring demeanor that never wavered, even as he tackled difficult subject matter. When making a narrative film that attempts to examine what exactly made Rogers such a one-of-a-kind educator and entertainer, perhaps the best decision director Marielle Heller made, besides casting the perfect man to portray Rogers in Tom Hanks, was to tell his story by way of a actually telling someone elses.

That story is one of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a well-respected but cynical reporter for Esquire magazine. Despite the pressures of his job Vogel still finds time to be a loving husband to a headstrong wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) who spends most of her time caring for their infant son. All is not well with Vogel's private life, however, as a brief but disastrous encounter with his estranged father (Chris Cooper) at his sister's wedding shows just how much anger and resentment Vogel carries. How fitting it is then that Vogel would be assigned by his boss to profile Fred Rogers, a man who devoted his life to teaching the importance of managing emotions in a proactive manner, for a special issue on heroes. Vogel initially balks at the assignment feeling a glorified puff piece on a children's entertainer is beneath him. What could a journalist accustomed to tackling big stories possibly learn from Mister Rogers? As it turns out, a lot, and after a pleasant exchange over the phone it's not long before Vogel is visiting Rogers on the set of his show, hoping to understand both how and why Rogers operates the way he does, both on camera and behind the scenes. At first Vogel seems as if he cannot accept the reality that someone could be as perpetually nice as Fred Rogers, that it surely must be a performance. In time a warm friendship begins to form between the disillusioned journalist and the good-natured television show host, one that forces Vogel to re-examine his relationship with his father.

Few casting choices in recent memory are likely to prove as inspired as Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Hanks so perfectly captures the calm and quiet vocal cadences and mannerisms that the iconic Rogers is so well known for, while exuding a genuine decency that endeared him to so many viewers. Hanks is pretty much assured an Oscar nomination, but in some ways, however, Matthew Rhys had the more difficult role of bringing the jaded journalist Vogel to life (the character was based loosely on real-life reporter Tom Junod, whose encounters with Rogers would serve partially as inspiration.) While Rogers remains a largely static character, it's Vogel who undergoes a drastic transformation, and Rhys does an excellent job of charting the characters emotional evolution, especially as it's revealed why his relationship with his father has proved to be so strained. As a director, Heller follows up her excellent work on Can You Ever Forgive Me? with another understated character study that places an emphasis on the emotions of the flawed, wounded individuals who occupy the spaces of her cinema, while her and screenwriters Micah-Fitzerman Blue and Noah Harpster's choice to frame the film as an episode of Mister Rogers show also proves inspired. There are moments in the film that would come off overly-sentimental in lesser hands, but Heller and her collaborators are able to avoid veering into schmaltz because they never refuse to acknowledge the darkness that exists within the world these individuals occupy. As a study on Mister Rogers, I would rank A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood just slightly below last year's wonderful documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, but it nonetheless does justice to the extraordinary life and legacy of Mister Rogers. Now more than ever we would all do well to remember the lessons he devoted his life to teaching.