For fans of the eternal goodness and life lessons of Fred Rogers, the last couple of years have been a real treat. Last year we got the Morgan Neville-directed Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a quite thorough walk through the life and legacy of Mr. Rogers. So rather than simply rehash the same biopic material from that pristine documentary, director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have come up with a way of conveying the influence of Rogers’ messages about kindness, forgiving and decency through the point a view of a real-life journalist and eventual close friend of Rogers, Tom Junod (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the film and played by Matthew Rhys, who is also in the current release The Report, also playing a reporter). We are often told to lead my example, and so A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gives several examples of the influence and impact Rogers had on just about everyone he met.
The film is framed as if it’s an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which the host filmed in his hometown of Pittsburgh for the entirety of its run (although remote segments were often done in New York City, frequently enough that Rogers and his wife Joanne kept an apartment there). It’s almost too perfect that Tom Hanks plays Rogers, because both exude such a magnificent empathy toward anyone with whom they come into contact—as if they were cut from the same cloth. Hanks sings and walks through the opening routine of the show—changing shoes, donning a familiar red sweater—but eventually he brings out a picture board that features images of friends (including those featured regularly on the show), but also a photo of Vogel looking like he’s just been punched in the face (this is accurate).
The film regularly steps away from Rogers to show us Vogel’s life as an investigative reporter for Esquire; he has a surly reputation that actually serves him well when questioning his sources. He’s given an assignment for the magazine’s Heroes issue to interview Rogers, and rather than stoop to deliver a puff piece, he starts grilling his subject on some of the less comfortable elements of his life. But rather than retreat, Rogers lean in and becomes all the more fascinated with what drives and motivates Junod. And that’s where the therapist in Rogers begins to emerge. As we see from his time away from Rogers, Vogel has a beyond-understanding wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson from “This Is Us”) and a newborn son. He is also estranged from his long-absent father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who is attempting to make a comeback into his son’s life after health issues crop up.
For completely legitimate reason, Vogel has no interest in patching things up with his father, but as he grows to know Rogers better and better over the months, Rogers encourages him to dive into the source of his anger and perhaps consider a path to forgiveness that might also allow Vogel to be the kind of husband and father he wants to be. It’s easy to be skeptical about a film like A Beautiful Day, both because it’s not exactly a traditional biopic and because it’s about the power of kindness winning over negative impulses. Rhys is a strong and talented enough actor to make the transition in Vogel seem quite difficult; he’s been living with his anger for so long, it’s become his closest companion. But the power of this story is in the overcoming of these negative feelings and the means by which Rogers encourages change without demanding it—almost like the person he’s talking to came up with the idea themselves.
Of course we get wonderful moments of Hanks as Rogers talking to children who need healing just as much as Vogel (or perhaps more so), and those scenes are quietly devastating and pure perfection. There’s another sequence at a diner where Rogers simply asks Vogel (and, by extension, the audience) to remain silent for one minute to think about something. There’s a similar moment in the documentary, and while the thing Rogers asks us to think about is slightly different, I suspect the tears that flow as a result will be quite similar.
A Beautiful Day isn’t attempting to tell the whole Fred Rogers tale. It’s taking the bigger-picture things we know about Rogers and narrowing them down to concrete examples of his work and influence on people to this day, even though he’s be gone since 2003. The film certainly could have dug deeper into Rogers’ family life, but I’m not sure that would have resulted in a better film or more complete portrait of the man. What’s here is a snapshot for a picture board, and it is a prime example of a picture being worth a thousand words. This is a satisfying and lovely film that every age will take something from.
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