If you read my review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2017) you already know how big of a fan I am of Fred Rogers. He is an inspiration to me, and I have largely tried to apply his philosophies to my teaching and how I interact with my students. Of course, I am no Fred Rogers, and from who I’ve met in my life, there isn’t anyone remotely close. However, Tom Hanks would probably be high on the list of possibilities. When he was announced for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), I was super excited to see it. In fact, few films were more anticipated for me than this one, and director Marielle Heller and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster largely exceeded them.
If you are expecting a straightforward biopic with Fred Rogers as the lead character, you will be surprised to find that isn’t what this movie is at all. The movie’s protagonist is actually Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is based on real-life reporter Tom Jund, and the movie is based on his article from 1998 called “Can You Say…Hero?”, who is shocked when he is given a “puff piece” interviewing Fred Rogers for a segment on heroes for Esquire magazine. Rogers surprises Vogel, and the interview extends as Vogel’s personal struggles and inner turmoil boil to the surface.
My absolute favorite choice that the film makes is framing the entire story as an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Heller uses the 4:3 ratio when we are in the “show”, and the usual widescreen for the moments in the film. It is one of the best uses of the ratio I’ve seen, and it really gives Hanks the opportunity to be the iconic figure that is Mr. Rogers. The movie opens the way the show did, as Rogers enters the set and changes from business to casual – blazer to cardigan and dress shoes to sneakers – and introduces us to the theme of the episode. We will be looking at his friends, and one friend in particular: Lloyd. This choice makes this movie stand out amongst biopics and allows for the theme and character of Rogers to truly shine throughout the film.
I always expect Hanks to be great, and he clearly succeeds based on my gushing thus far – but Matthew Rhys is not an actor I’m super familiar with. However, I thought Rhys does a tremendous job of crafting an empathetic character. He is up against the talent of Hanks, and they work really well together. Vogel is portrayed as a huge cynic, and is looking to find the “truth” about Rogers and expose him for fraud – or at least find the cracks in his persona. It’s the perfect audience surrogate for the skeptics that still remain, and allows the film to tell such an optimistic story. Good can exist. It is not something that only Fred Rogers possessed…but he did embody it, and this movie embodies him.
I could gush about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood forever, and it is definitely one I’ll likely see again in the theater and will definitely add it to my collection. This movie ran me through the gamut of positive emotions, and I can’t wait to experience it all again. I enjoyed the performances and the choices of the filmmaker. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood earns the Must See rating.