Once upon a time, on a children’s television program, a gentleman with grey hair and a kind smile walked into a house while singing a song. That man then took off his blazer and put on a comfy zippered cardigan. Then he took off his dress shoes and put on a pair of blue boating sneakers and began the show. This man was Fred Rogers and the show was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Now, it’s 2020 and Fred Rogers and his neighbourhood have been brought back to life through Marielle Heller’s biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, inspired by the 1998 Esquire cover story Can You Say… Hero? and starring the legendary Tom Hanks in the title role alongside Welsh actor Matthew Rhys as a fictionalised version of Tom Junod, the journalist who allowed his life to be changed by this kind old man.
Beginning in February 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a staple program for young children across the United States. Utilising puppets, songs, characters and demonstrations, Fred Rogers used his show to help children learn about the world, often covering darker subjects that other programs avoided such as death, divorce and war. Running for a whopping 912 episodes, it was the longest running children’s program until Sesame Street broke its record in 2003. Every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began more or less the same, with Mister Rogers putting on his sneakers and his cardigan and singing a song. This is how we are first introduced to him in Heller’s film as well, with Hanks smiling into the camera as he croons “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”
Heller’s whole film is framed like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, right down to the grainy exposure and 4:3 aspect ratio that turns the cinema into a television screen as he talks about his friend, investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). The film then jumps to the high definition 1.85:1 theatre format to follow the main ‘present day’ narrative of Vogel in the lead up to meeting Rogers and initiating his interviews. It does this back-and-forth frequently, peppered with transition shots cleverly crafted of model buildings and vehicles pulled along by tracks and string to mirror those of the original show. It’s a smart framework, giving the film the kind of whimsical quality that made the long-running series so popular.
As Mister Rogers’ “episode” unfolds, so too does the relationship between “present day” Rogers and Vogel. It’s important to note here that Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t really about Fred Rogers. Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, much like the cover story it is based on, isn’t about Fred Rogers so much as it’s about how Fred Rogers influenced and affected those around him. While Rogers guides the narrative, much of the film is centred on Vogel and his family, his job, his emotions, and the way he is disconnected from all of those things. His relationship with Rogers, as they talk, as they walk, as they interact, directly alters his perception of himself and thus everything in his life.
Vogel, a charming but rather unlikeable character exhibits a typical machismo where one takes the hurt they feel and buries it; he is, however, immediately disarmed by Rogers in a way that is endearing and understandable. Through their time together as interviewee and subject, Rogers delicately reveals that Vogel is a wounded and angry man in desperate need of encouragement and healing. He is gradually able to accept his life and the pathways he took to get there – it’s a satisfactory conclusion to the classical cynic-turned-believer arc that he is able to redeem himself through his relationship with Rogers, and Heller is able to lead her audience there without it feeling overly cheesy and cliche, an impressive feat for a director with only two feature films under her belt.
Hanks, who at the time of writing has been nominated 7 times for his performance, possesses something – a peaceful, quiet, and somehow more wholesome than ever quality – that is difficult to look away from. With a lopsided gaze, Hanks peers deep into your soul even when he’s not directly facing the camera. He is the human equivalent of a weighted blanket; warm, embracing, and emotionally supportive. Rhys on the other hand lives and breathes standoffishness through Vogel – from the wardrobe and his propensity towards snide comments, to the way the darkness and longing creeps into his eyes at the mention of his estranged father, everything about Vogel should be unlikeable and Rhys leans into this knowledge wholeheartedly, delivering a performance that is both prickly and sympathetic.
For those of us who did not have the experience of growing up as an American child, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just another nice story to learn about, beautifully acted and emotionally touching in all the right places, but for those who actually witnessed the phenomenon of Mister Rogers, this film becomes something more; a large-scale exploration of how to say you’re sorry and how to accept forgiveness, how to smash a bunch of keys on the piano and how to process the pain, the joy, the sadness, and the anger. How to take a moment of silence for yourself, for your loved ones, and the people you forgot you loved. How to play pretend and how to learn something new. And behind it all, the man who taught millions of children lessons so valuable, that they have no doubt shaped their adulthood.
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Tom Hanks at a slew of award shows, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood hits Australian cinemas on Thursday 23rd January.