In A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, the actor takes on the celebrated children’s entertainer Mr Rogers. But the story is less about celebrity than it is about kindness, family and how to overcome toxic masculinity.
This story contains very mild spoilers for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.
Tom Hanks is Hollywood’s nicest guy, or so the stories say, so it makes sense that the actor would take on the role of Mr Fred Rogers.
Mr Rogers, as he was known to the millions of children who grew up watching his television series in the US, was not only television’s nicest guy, but America’s. The stories about him are endless, as are the stories about Hanks.
Mr Rogers was an ordained minister and puppeteer who created the TV show Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood to teach children how to process and understand their emotions. He was hardworking and curious and kind, a man who kept handwritten notes on all of his friendships that he stored in filing cabinets in his office in Pittsburgh. He cared about children, so much so that, famously, when he assigned one of his staff members the responsibility of penning a manual on how medical practitioners should talk to children, he read the first draft and gave only one note: “You were a child once too.”
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There are stories like this about Hanks, too.
If you follow the Oscar-winning actor on Twitter, you’ll know that he regularly does things like photobomb weddings and find personal items of great significance that have been lost in parks and reunite them with their owners. He once stopped filming on a blockbuster movie so that he could escort a bride, whose wedding his film had disrupted, down the aisle. On the set of Forest Gump, he wrote a weekly newsletter on his typewriter about the happenings among the cast and crew. In September, he was a literal shoulder for the New York Times profiler Taffy Brodesser-Akner to cry on. During their interview.
I share these stories not because they are remarkable but because, when it comes to thinking about both Hanks and Rogers, they are unremarkable. A handful of stories in a lifetime of anecdotes that speak to the importance of kindness as a moral value.
This is what A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is about, a film directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Diary Of A Teenage Girl) in which Hanks stars as Rogers and gives a performance that has already been tipped for Oscars glory. It is a small film, not a traditional biopic per se but rather a movie about a journalist – loosely based on the writer Tom Junod, who penned a profile of Mr Rogers for Esquire in 1998 – who, through meeting Mr Rogers, becomes a better person in ways both minor and imperative. This, in today’s harsh and forbidding world, is something we all can work towards.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is based on Junod’s Esquire article, but it is not about Junod specifically. Instead, the main character is a journalist called Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is so tightly-wound he has become part pretzel. Despite being a new father and freshly married to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), Lloyd is tormented by a fractious relationship with his neglectful father. So much so that when his dad (Chris Cooper) tries to make amends, Lloyd punches him. This is how Lloyd and Mr Rogers meet.
At the heart of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is an investigation of masculinity and an attempt to answer the questions: What makes a man good? What can we do with all the emotions that we feel, all the time? This movie is not a biopic of Mr Rogers’ life. For those looking for that story, try the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a box office-smashing hit that was snubbed at the Oscars in 2019. Instead, by looking at the relationship between Mr Rogers and Lloyd, and the ways in which Mr Rogers teaches Lloyd how to be a person in the world, it gets at the heart of Mr Rogers’ philosophies without dwelling too long on his life story.
Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2018, director Heller explained that she never wanted to make a movie about a man until she read the script for the Mr Rogers film. “There was something about this story about what it is to be a good man,” she explained. “And manhood. And the way we don’t really let men connect to their feelings in a real, meaningful way.” She had just had her first child and was wrapping production on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant-starring drama about Lee Israel’s life of crime in the 90s. “Whatever reason,” she said, “it just felt important to me and I couldn’t explain it. But I had to make this movie.”
Lloyd, who is assigned a profile on Mr Rogers as part of a package on heroes, originally does not believe the man’s shtick. Lloyd storms out of the pair’s early meetings after Mr Rogers asks him about his childhood toys or assumes the persona of one of the characters from his children’s show. Lloyd’s instinct, as an investigative reporter, is to nail the guy to the wall. What is his deal? How can one man, one person, be so good? “Please don’t ruin my childhood,” Andrea implores Lloyd one night as they lie in bed.
The point of the film is that Mr Rogers isn’t a perfect person. Throughout the film he goes to great lengths to explain to Lloyd that his empathy and curiosity and kindness are a result of working on all the things that might prevent those emotions from rising to the top. “We are trying to give the world positive ways of dealing with their feelings,” Mr Rogers explains. “There are many things you can do. You can play all the lowest keys on the piano at the same time. Bonggg!” You can swim laps every morning. You can talk about your emotions. You can ask for help.
These last two, at the very least, are not things that men are traditionally taught that they can do. And this is the power of Mr Rogers as a figure in the cultural landscape. Not as a reminder of the impossibility of one man’s perfection, but as a person who worked at his goodness every single day. We can all do that, even if we will never achieve a Mr Rogers level of perfection. And that’s OK. Just trying is enough, sometimes. It has to be. Because otherwise, what would the point be?
By the end of his time with Mr Rogers, Lloyd is trying. He wants to be a good father, he wants to be a good husband, he wants to be a good man. But he needed someone to show him how. He needed to be that child, sitting in front of the television, watching Mr Rogers teach us how to be. (You were a child once too, remember?) It’s like Fleabag, isn’t it, prostrate in front of the priest – I can’t call him the Hot Priest, not in an article about Mr Rogers – asking him to tell her how to live. “I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them,” she says. “I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”
At the end of Junod’s original Esquire article, he describes his experience of praying with Mr Rogers. “What is grace?” he asks. “I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella… Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn’t, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.”
This scene does not appear in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, at least not exactly. But there is a scene, about two thirds of the way through the movie, in which Lloyd and Mr Rogers go out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Mr Rogers asks Lloyd to do something with him. He asks him to sit there in silence and, internally, give thanks to all the people who have brought value into their life.
And so they do, just Lloyd and Mr Rogers sitting in the Chinese restaurant in silence, Heller’s camera panning in very slowly on their table. Mr Rogers, which is to say Hanks, sits with a serene, empathetic smile on his face. Lloyd, eyes downcast and shoulders slumped, begins to cry. Is this what grace looks like? I don’t know. But that scene looks like that feeling of when your heart is a spike before it opens into an umbrella, a reminder that we can all live a good life.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is in cinemas in the US now and in the UK on 31 January 2020.
Images: Sony, Getty
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.