Mister Rogers has always been something of an enigma to me. The television presenter never really made it outside of the US, so for the rest of the world, there isn’t necessarily the same connection that’s led so many Americans to love and cherish him as an idol. Some may approach A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with trepidation because of this but they should fear not, as director Marielle Heller has ingeniously crafted a Mister Rogers movie that’s not just about Mister Rogers, but is one that reshapes his unique brand of optimism to be recognizable around the world.
The most obvious manner in which Heller did this is with the casting of Tom Hanks as Rogers himself. The physical resemblance between the two men is hardly uncanny, but the casting works perfectly because Hanks on his own is an incredibly prominent figure of American wholesomeness, making the kindness of Rogers more understandable coming from such a familiar face. Outside of the metatextual element to the casting Hanks himself is typically remarkable, perfectly capturing Rogers soft-spoken sensitivity in a manner that’s somehow both alien and deeply human — Rogers’ positivity feels almost like an anomaly, so impossible a bar to clear, but Hanks always tethers it to the deeply grounded humanity that this man manages to be so articulately in touch with. As much as Mister Rogers stands as a mythic figure in some ways, Heller and Hanks smartly realize how crucial it is that Rogers never existed only as a myth, and that his effectiveness as a beacon of kindness was first and foremost because he was human.
The impact of Rogers in the movie is felt even more so by the fact that he’s only a supporting character here, which may come as a surprise to many. Our lead is Esquire magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist who is tasked by his editor to write a short profile on Rogers for an upcoming issue on American heroes. Vogel, who is used to writing darker, hard-hitting journalism, struggles to find an angle to make the story interesting, but over the course of his time spent with Rogers finds himself challenged by the man’s simple open-heartedness. Using a journalist character as a framing device to get a look into a more famous celebrity is an often eye-rolling narrative technique, especially in the case of the prestige awards-bait movies that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may on first glance appear to follow in the footsteps of, but Heller smartly gives Vogel the brunt of the emotional journey of the movie.
Rogers himself undergoes very little change over the film, instead of acting as an agent of change for Vogel. It’s not the approach I expected the movie to take but in hindsight, it feels like the only way the movie could have properly done Rogers justice. By presenting him in such a matter of fact manner opposite such a cynical character it allows us the best window into what Rogers stood for and represents, rather than contorting his life into the generic biopic framework a lesser director may have done. Of course, the movie only works if the Vogel character is effective too and he certainly is. It’s obviously not as enchanting a role as Rogers but Rhys proves more than capable of carrying the emotional heft of the movie, and as a longtime fan of FX’s The Americans it’s deeply gratifying to see him nail a role as prominent as this.
And while on the surface it may seem like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a film about a cynic trying to understand the positivity of Mister Rogers, Heller’s masterstroke is that it’s actually about a cynic who comes to understand more about himself, thanks to the perspective that Rogers provides. Lloyd is the complete opposite of Rogers; he’s resentful, he holds a long-standing intense grudge against his absent father (Chris Cooper) who is suddenly trying to reconcile with his son, he compartmentalizes his emotions and he doesn’t properly take into account his wife’s considerations.
As much as Vogel’s conversations with Rogers soon start making Vogel question the way he treats others, Heller doesn’t boil down the message of the movie to a simple “be nice to everyone!” or “embrace positivity!” but instead takes a stance that recognises the difficulty in being in touch with your emotions to the degree that Rogers is. To be forgiving is hard, and showing genuine consideration for those around you can take time and effort. It’s the clarity that Heller realizes this in that truly elevates A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood beyond standard awards framework, and renders it a truly touching window into the heart and soul of Fred Rogers.
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