It fascinates me how Fred Rogers has made a comeback in pop culture these past few years. From seeing t-shirts with his words of wisdom to his own Funko Pop (both of which I got as gifts from my mother) we’re seeing him in places I never thought possible. Last year Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? nabbed the top spot on my ten favorite films of 2018. When news broke that Tom Hanks would be portraying Mr. Rogers in a biopic it was intriguing and I was skeptical. Could one of the greatest actors of this generation pull off the look, mannerisms, and voice of such an iconic man? Did Tom Hanks truly make it “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”?
Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say Hero?” acts as an ‘inspiration’ for the film and gives us an interesting narrative. Investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a new father with a cynical chip on his shoulder. When his boss at Esquire tells him he’ll be writing a profile on Fred Rogers (Hanks) he scoffs at the idea. How can a man who spends all day playing with puppets be of interest? In the meantime, his life is thrown for a loop. Between the responsibilities of being a husband and father, his own deadbeat father (Chris Cooper) has come back into the fold. In order to ignore this entirely, he dives headfirst into his new assignment.
This is all an interesting concept, but it does lead to a major question. Is it a problem that Fred Rogers’ own film makes Lloyd the focal point for the story? Kind of, but it gives the audience a better way into the story. Lloyd’s life is chaotic, messy, and in need of some help. I’d say the film is more about the importance of Rogers’ philosophy than it is about the man himself. This does give more to the overall point even when the man himself is missing from scenes.
I’ve always been a fan of Hanks thanks to the fact that I’ve grown up through most of the rise of his career. When I saw the first publicity still of him as Rogers I wasn’t convinced. He looked like Hanks, but I held out hope that an actor of his caliber could pull this off. As the film began I could still see Hanks and wondered if this would work. The great thing, as the film progressed I began to see less of Hanks and more Rogers. It wasn’t a flawless blend of actor into character, but short of casting an unknown, I doubt anyone could’ve done better.
With being the audience’s POV of the film it left Rhys with a lot of work. He did a great job as the counterpoint to Rogers who also needs the man’s help. Vogel is a cynical man who looks for the worst in even the best person. Rogers is an optimist who looks for the best in even the worst person. Some of the best moments show Vogel suspicious that Rogers could possibly be as good a man as he is. Only for him to keep digging and turning his own questions inward.
It’s a tough call, but in spite of the minor issues, the core theme of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood makes it worth seeing. In these times we could all benefit from a refresher course in the Rogers’ School of Kindness. It will also hopefully lead people to check out Neville’s documentary from last year. We all ought to look where we can for inspiration to be better humans.
Overall Score 4/5