The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood I thought was going to be some sort of biopic about Mr. Fred Rogers. But it really wasn’t.
Rather, the story concentrated on a hard-bitten journalist Tom Junod. He’s called Lloyd Vogel in the film, played by Matthew Rhys (The Americans; Brothers and Sisters). Lloyd is assigned to write a puff piece on the television performer (Tom Hanks). He interviewed Rogers extensively for what was supposed to be a 400-word piece in Esquire magazine. Because of that very clever angle, the story worked.
Tom Hanks, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globes, embodies Fred Rogers without overtly imitating him. I was astounded by a couple of interviewers suggesting to Hanks that playing Mr. Rogers must have been easy. Fred Rogers was nice. Tom Hanks seems nice. Those reporters showed no understanding of the craft in creating a specific persona.
Even though it it less Fred’s story than Lloyd’s, the values of guy in the cardigan sweater are clearly infused. One of the funny moments was in the trailer, but still worked. Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) says to her husband, “please don’t ruin my childhood.” Chris Cooper is strong as Lloyd’s estranged father.
For its time
As Ken Levine put it in his review: “As I was watching it I thought, if Fred Rogers hadn’t really existed no one would ever buy this film. We’d all be saying, ‘No one is that genuine and kind-hearted.’ But of course he was. And my second thought was ‘Boy, we sure could use him now.'” That last sentiment shows up at least in the subtext of many of the reviews I read.
I’m glad this was not the standard biopic because the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which I loved, already covered that territory. And if it isn’t quite as strong as the doc, the biopic nevertheless stands on its own.
(Conversely, I had a much different feeling after seeing two films about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The documentary RBG was great. The biopic On the Basis of Sex was extraneous unless you’d never seen RBG.)
I recommend A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which did made me feel better about the world. Oh, and check out a piece from the Washington Post: “What happened when I showed vintage Mister Rogers to my 21st-century kids.”