A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood
Fred Rogers, most commonly known simply as Mr. Rogers, was a PBS television host whose program was created for young kids with the simple and pure but oftentimes complex notion of understanding and coping with feelings. As a child of the 1980s, I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. My brother being a child of the 1990s also watched his show; a program that came (and remained) true from its humble beginnings throughout its 31 season tenure between 1968 and 2001. “A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood” is a biopic of Fred Rogers that takes place in the late 90s and is just as much about Fred as it is about Lloyd Vogel, a cynical journalist for Esquire Magazine, on assignment to write a puff piece about a hero.
The movie opens (and remains) surprisingly cerebral. Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) comes out during the opening of one of his shows. He comes in singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood” as he changes into his iconic red cardigan and slips on his sneakers. Like Rogers himself, Hanks’ performance as Rogers makes you believe that he’s talking to just you that the program is catered just to you and your feelings. What Rogers did (and what Hanks pulled off) was quite remarkable.
After the song, Mr. Rogers shows a picture board with several small doors showing pictures of people expressing feelings of joy or surprise. Then the third door he opens is that of a man with a confused and scared expression on his face with a cut on his nose and a swollen eye. Rogers then asks the audience (me) why I think he looks this way and what could’ve happened to him. Then, right on cue, Mr. McFeely the mailman enters with a tape about his new friend named Lloyd, (Matthew Rhys) who happens to be the man in the photo with the scared expression and damaged face.
Now the film goes from 4th wall break to flashback, but it does so in the spirit of the Mr. Rogers’ show with model buildings, roads, and cars. This transition is consistently used throughout the film that both delighted me and kept me in the mindset of, “I’m still watching an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The audience is introduced to Lloyd Vogel, a cynical man and new father who is estranged from most of his family. He is put on assignment from his boss at Esquire Magazine to interview Fred Rogers, which Lloyd immediately sees as an opportunity to expose him as a presumed fraud at worst or to reveal that the man on the television program is just a character (at best.) But almost immediately after meeting Rogers, Lloyd realizes that Mr. Rogers is a man whose gentile ways are very disarming and brings about to make him realize that what Mr. Rogers talks about on his program about understanding your feelings are not just for kids, but are just as complex and important for adults to understand, too.
In the amazing awareness about mental health issues that have come to light in society over the last few years, and its release during the tail end of the holiday season, there was no better time (logistically or strategically) to make and release this film. I’m not trying to sound like a skeptic myself, far from it. This movie was magical in more ways than I thought possible. Truth be told, it was a lot better than what I was expecting. Tom Hanks may not even attempt to impersonate the voice of Fred Rogers, but he gets the cadence and timber of it down to perfection. His overall performance was back in true Hanks form and I suspect he will receive an Oscar nomination for the role when the nominations are announced on January 13, 2020. This is a surprisingly powerful film with messages and themes that Mr. Rogers himself would be proud of: compassion, forgiveness, and finding inner-strength.