One of the year's most pleasant movie surprises is "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," which tells the story of the relationship between Fred "Mr. Rogers" and the magazine writer Tom Junod. I explained what I like about the film in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
I remember the first time I ever had a conversation about Fred Rogers. I’d caught his children’s program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” a couple of times in the early ’70s and, to be honest, the guy creeped me out.
I told this to a friend, a guy I’d known for years and someone whose attitudes toward most things I shared, expecting him to agree. Instead, he turned to me and said, “Don’t say that in front of my son. He loves the guy.”
I’ve carried that memory for close to five decades now. Yet it’s been only recently that I’ve fully understood its significance. It’s taken me that long to again start to see things through the eyes I had as a child, the world in general and Mr. Rogers in particular.
Of course, the movies have helped. First, there was Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which gives an intimate portrayal of Rogers and the program he helmed for some 33 years. And now, in theaters, we have “IA Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a narrative film directed by Marielle Heller and starring Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys.
Based on an Esquire magazine article that Tom Junod wrote in 1998, Heller’s film is as much about Junod as it is about Rogers. Though the film changes some things – Rhys’ character is called Lloyd Vogel, for example – the fundamental reality remains: A magazine writer is assigned the task of profiling a so-called hero, namely Rogers, and that writer – Junod in real life, Vogel in the film – has misgivings.
This guy Mr. Rogers, a hero? Really? He can’t be for real … can he? In answering that question, the writer eventually discovers a truth not only about Mr. Rogers but about himself that sets him on a path of self-awareness.
This may not be an original plot path, but the way Heller portrays it is. Barely two minutes into “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” she blends Rogers’ show – known for its corny set design revolving around the imaginary neighborhood – with the real characters featured in the movie itself. In a sequence portraying the show’s various characters – Lady Aberlin, for example, and Mr. McFeely – Rogers segues from the fictitious to the real by introducing Vogel, his picture showing the bruised face of a man in pain.
And we’re off, Heller taking us back and forth, weaving the writer’s path from cynical observer to someone willing to trust that good does exist in the world – and that maybe, just maybe, he has the capacity not only to pass that good on to his own baby boy but to forgive the man, his father (played by Chris Cooper), whom he has long hated.
In portraying this, Rhys – a Welsh actor best known for his role in the miniseries “The Americans” – is fine. But the heart of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is Hanks, who doesn’t impersonate Rogers so much as channel him.
It’s through Hanks – who in one scene stares directly into the camera – that the spirit of a true American hero so brightly shines.