In this film about celebrated American children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks takes on the role of a lifetime. But this is no staid biopic. In director Marielle Heller’s hands, the movie becomes a celebration of emotion and vulnerability, answering the question: how should a person be? How can I live a good life?
The casting feels apt. Mister Rogers, who was beamed into households around the US for decades on his children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was a notorious nice guy. A deeply spiritual and eccentric family man, Rogers cared about children and their emotional development in a way that few people of his generation did. He wanted children to understand the world as it was and not in the sanitised way that some adults tried to present it to them. He wanted children to stay in tune with their emotions. He wanted them to know that it was OK to cry, that feelings were normal – that all we had to do was know what to do with those feelings.
This is the man at the centre of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, the new film from Can You Ever Forgive Me director Marielle Heller.
Rogers is at the centre of the movie, yes, but he’s not its focus. Not really. That would be Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), the cynical Esquire magazine journalist dispatched to profile Rogers for an upcoming issue. Vogel – very loosely based on Tom Junod, who in turn was once a cynical Esquire magazine journalist sent to profile Rogers for an upcoming issue – has just had a baby and is struggling to make sense of his life as a father, given that he has a non-existent relationship with his own dad.
So when he goes all the way to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers and get under his skin, and instead of finding a difficult or mollycoddled celebrity he finds a humble and graceful man whose eyes sparkle with keen intelligence, Vogel is infuriated.
What, he demands to know, is this guy’s deal? How can one man be so good? How can he care about children, and the world, and Vogel himself, so much? How can he make growing and learning and feeling and living, just merely living, look so easy?
The answer is that he doesn’t. After several interviews and one fainting episode on Rogers’ set, Vogel understands that Rogers doesn’t find the act of being good effortless. He has to work at being good every single day, has to constantly push himself to do the right thing. That is all anyone can do, he explains to Vogel at one point in the movie. And that is enough. It has to be.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a remarkable movie, not because it tells us so much about Rogers’ life, but because it doesn’t. A traditional biopic would have unfolded in chronological sequence, showing as Rogers as a child – studious, curious, kind – to hint at the man he would become.
Instead, we meet Rogers in media Hanks, a man in the twilight of his career still operating at near-legendary levels of humility. And though we see glimpses of his life outside of work – in one scene Rogers and his wife sit next to each other on twin grand pianos and furiously pound out arpeggios, a moment that conveys so, so much – Rogers is relegated to the role of supporting character.
In A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Rogers exists to shine a light on Vogel, which is the ingenuity of Heller’s film. The filmmaker takes the bones of the values and themes of Rogers’ television shows and explores them through the character of Vogel. It’s funny to watch Vogel, a punch-throwing, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker – and a journalist, to boot – as his blood slowly comes to an insufferable boiling point around Rogers.
This is everything Vogel hates in the world: hand puppets and sing-song tunes and sensible cardigans. It’s powerful, too, when Vogel comes to realise that those things that he sneered at, like Rogers’ teachings about forgiveness and gratefulness, are some of the most important things in the world. Maybe the only things in the world, when all is said and done.
By shifting focus in this way Heller gives you a better understanding of Rogers the man than many biopics usually offer of their subjects. This is a movie about what Rogers really stood for, about what it means to be good and how can we achieve that, how we can be a parent, how we can forgive.
It helps that Hanks is giving one of his best performances of all time in a career full of fantastic performances. Hanks, one of Hollywood’s notoriously nice guys, is perfectly cast as Rogers, even despite the fact that physically the two look quite different. (Rogers was tall and very slim, even taller and slimmer than Hanks, and there was a round, goofiness to his features that Hanks doesn’t have.)
What Hanks lacks in physical similarities he more than makes up for in essence. The second Hanks appears onscreen, recreating the set up of an episode of Rogers’ television show, it’s like sinking into a warm bath.
Hanks radiates empathy and warmth in all of his performances – it’s why has only very rarely played bad guys, and rightly so. Here, he ratchets that warmth factor up to the highest possible notch. It’s an unspeakably moving pleasure just to watch him, watching Vogel, kindness written all over his face.
No wonder, then, that Hanks has received his first Oscar nomination in 19 years for the performance. (Pundits say that he won’t win, given the domination of Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but boy, he should. He really should.) Hanks is doing some gold star work in this movie.
His best scene is one that comes towards the end when, during one of their interviews, Rogers takes Vogel to a local Chinese restaurant. Vogel is a mess: his estranged father is back in his life, he’s fighting with his wife and he has a brand new baby that he doesn’t know how to relate to. Vogel sits there, slumped over, eyes bloodshot and bleary while Rogers looks upon him with all the benevolence of a saint. Together, the pair share a moment of reflection in complete silence as Heller’s camera moves almost imperceptibly towards them.
It’s a quiet scene, powerful in its intimacy. Rogers, embodied in Hanks’ kind and knowing gaze, wants to help Vogel think about his feelings, and what to do with all of them. This is a film that wants you to think about those things, too.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is in cinemas in the UK on 31 January.
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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