By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Last year’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opened up my eyes, heart, and mind to realize what a truly extraordinary human Fred Rogers was. As a child, I grew up occasionally watching Mr. Rogers, not truly appreciating his unusual approach to children’s television or the valuable life lessons he taught on his show. As an adult watching this excellent documentary, I witnessed his impact on his audiences and the people closest to him. And because the filmmakers tell his amazing story so well, I ended up choosing the movie as my number one documentary of the year.
Well, I did not find it too surprising that Hollywood would follow suit and make a narrative feature film about Rogers. Myself included, many people asked why anyone would even bother making a dramatization of Fred Rogers when a documentary already did an excellent job of telling his story. So, even though Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells a more comprehensive narrative about Rogers, this new film has a narrower scope, focussing on Rogers’ impact on one man. For this reason, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood stands apart from its predecessor. It tells a more personal story about how Fred Rogers changed the life of one person whose heart had been broken, seemingly beyond all repair.
Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, a tough and skeptical journalist for Esquire Magazine who has developed a nasty reputation as one of journalism’s more reviled writers. Normally taking a no-holds-barred and biting approach to his content and commentary, Vogel receives a rather unusual assignment for a change. As part of a “Heroes” series, Lloyd gets tasked with interviewing the lovable, but idiosyncratic television host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). In addition to feeling uncomfortable and frustrated with an off-brand type of assignment, Lloyd has some of personal problems troubling his mind and heart. As Vogel gets to know Mr. Rogers better, he begins to realize what a remarkable person he really is.
Though the movie sounds simplistic and transparent, the writing and direction make the journey a beautifully affecting one. Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and director Marielle Heller have made a wonderful and emotionally powerful film with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Heller and the writers take a delightfully novel approach to the material and present it as a “very special (and extended) episode of” Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood where the subject is Lloyd Vogel and how he must face the issues that torment him. As told by Hanks’ Rogers and mostly through the eyes, mind and heart of Lloyd Vogel, the movie does deal with some really heavy and heart-wrenching content. Both the writing and direction work superbly to affect the audience in all of the appropriate ways and do so without ever being heavy-handed or forceful. It really is an emotionally charged journey that is a true testament to the beautiful soul of Fred Rogers.
The cast assembled for this tremendous movie all play their parts well and without ever overselling their roles. Matthew Rhys gives a powerful performance that is about as perfectly realized and executed as possible. Rhys shows an impressive range of real emotions and some demonstrative vulnerability. As Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks superbly channels the loving and charismatic spirit that won the hearts of so many people. Though his voice doesn’t sound identical to that of Rogers, he amazingly recreates the genuine heart and soul of the iconic television host and family advocate. The movie also features outstanding turns by Chris Cooper and Susan Kelechi Watson.
So for those grumbling that there is no need for a Hollywood version about the impact of Fred Rogers, this movie retorts with a hearty and resounding dissent. And after watching and being moved by the film, I would have to agree with the movie’s stance wholeheartedly. Posthumously, Fred Rogers remains as a shining example of what a human should be, and this beautiful example of his love proves that there is always room for stories that exemplify and honor what he represents. The filmmakers behind this incredible movie knew this and have succeeded in presenting this story in a way that would’ve pleased Rogers to no end.