“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not a motion picture about beloved children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers. Not really. Oh, he’s a major character, of course. The pivotal character, I would venture to say. But “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is really a film about Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel – loosely based on Tom Junod, who interviewed Mr. Rogers for a magazine expose in 1998 and found his life transformed by the gentle role model.
Assigned to write what journalists often refer to as a “puff piece” on Rogers, Vogel questions his editor as to why he – a writer known for his worldly cynicism – would be asked to cover Mr. Rogers. Is he supposed to belittle someone so beloved and cherished by children and adults alike that a subway car full of strangers sings “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” to Rogers when they notice he is a fellow rider? Assuming that can’t possibly be the case, Vogel embarks on his journey with a distinct, “Let’s get this over with” attitude.
Vogel watches Rogers in action during a taping in his Pittsburgh studio, followed by a (very) quick interview before Rogers is whisked off to his next appointment. During the interview, Vogel asks a few standard “getting to know you” questions, but it doesn’t take Rogers long to turn the tables on the young writer. By the time Rogers is forced to break off the discussion, he’s the one asking the probing questions of Vogel How did you feel when your mother died? Do you ever desire to mend your broken relationship with your father? Why don’t you want your baby to know his grandfather?
At first, it seems as though Rogers is playing Vogel for a fool. But it doesn’t take long before we (and Vogel) realize Rogers is simply a genuine person; a man who truly cares about everyone he meets. A man who never met a stranger. And who prays every night for those on his heart — by name.
There’s perhaps no one better suited to play Fred Rogers than the (almost equally beloved) Tom Hanks. Rogers was a very unique persona. His accent and mannerisms are practically impossible to duplicate. Hanks does as good a job as anyone, I suppose, but unlike Renee Zellweger’s Judy Garland in “Judy,” this is not an impersonation. Hanks captures the amiable spirit of Mr. Rogers, but we’re always keenly aware we’re watching Hanks.
Vogel is played by Matthew Rhys, who played Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 offering “The Post” – which also starred Tom Hanks. Vogel is the primary character in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” He and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson from “This is Us”) attend his sister’s wedding, only to become reacquainted with Vogel’s estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) – a man Vogel reviles for cheating on his mother while she was dying of cancer years earlier.
As “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” progresses, Jerry makes every attempt to reunite with his son, only to be rejected at every turn. In classic Mr. Rogers fashion, Rogers doesn’t necessarily pressure Vogel to accept his father’s peace offerings; he merely provides the voice of understanding and compassion – the proverbial shoulder to cry on, if you will. We get the idea no one has ever treated Vogel with such a sense of encouragement and benevolence – perhaps since his mother.
Vogel initially rejects Rogers’ “therapy” – finding it annoying and personally offensive. But, as we might guess, things simply have a way of working out in Mr. Rogers’ world; and Vogel begins to see the situation from his father’s point of view. This is not high-end psychological counseling here. This is Fred Rogers – who spent his lifetime speaking to children as a voice of understanding and compassion – working his magic with an adult.
It’s interesting to watch. Hanks reminds us how much we loved Rogers – and why. But “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” sheds absolutely no light on what made Rogers tick. Why was he so revered? Where did his sense of awareness come from? Was it something bestowed upon him by his own parents?
Last year’s Morgan Neville documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is the film you’ll want to watch if your intent is to learn about Fred Rogers – his background, his upbringing, his television program and his legacy. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” merely presents a snapshot of Rogers during a brief moment in time. We experience the delicate power Rogers had over anyone he met. We know he had that effect on people – even adults, we presume. But we learn scarcely little about the man himself.
And that makes “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” a major disappointment. This film could have been an eye-opener; it could have taught me a few things about Rogers that I didn’t know. Instead, the Rogers presented by director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is exactly the Rogers I expect – calm, reassuring, yet dynamic in his own understated way. I can’t say that I ever saw Rogers “work his magic” on a troubled adult. But if I had, I would expect it to proceed exactly as imagined in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”