Casting America’s most trusted actor as America’s most trusted TV personality was a bit of a no-brainer. That’s why Tom Hanks was the perfect choice to play Fred Rogers in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, a story that is very loosely based on real events.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, THE POST; TV’s THE AMERICANS) is a hard-boiled writer for Esquire magazine. His editor (played by Oscar® winner Christine Lahti, TV’s CHICAGO HOPE) informs him that the magazine is doing an anthology on the subject of “Heroes” and she wants him to interview beloved kids’ TV icon Fred Rogers and put together 400 words for the collection of stories she’s compiling. Vogel is probably the least likely person for this assignment as he’s known for knocking public idols off their pedestals but Rogers has read Vogel’s work and he requested the writer. Vogel heads to their meeting expecting Rogers to be a phony but his eyes are soon opened to the man’s sincerity and innate goodness. What was supposed to be a short meeting turns into multiple conversations as Rogers understands that Vogel is in need of a neighbour whom he can trust.
As nice as this story is, it’s simply not true, so to call this film a biopic is a stretch. The events in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD are only sort of true. While Lloyd Vogel is a fictional character, a real Esquire writer, Tom Jurod, interviewed and wrote a piece on Rogers (entitled “Can You Say… Hero?”), though he never had the kind of parental issues that Vogel has.
Hanks, not surprisingly, does a wonderful job bringing Rogers back to life by getting the icon’s speech cadence and body movements just right, though the actor is chunkier by comparison. Rogers was a very lean 143 pounds, which is probably why director Marielle Heller (CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?) chose not to give audiences a look at Hanks’ torso as he jumped into the pool to perform Rogers’ daily ritual of swimming laps. Extra pounds aside, the film shows us that Rogers truly was the real deal – a man who instinctively knew how reach into people’s hearts and get them to put a voice to their feelings whether he used his hand puppet, Daniel the Tiger, or just offered a hug and a few softly spoken words. Rhys puts in a solid performance too, wearing his character’s emotional inner turmoil on his face for both Rogers and the audience to see.
While this film is very different from the 2018 documentary on Rogers (WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?), comparisons will be made and, if I may, this film comes up slightly short because at the end of the day it’s about a real person placed in a fictional situation. Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that Rogers would have behaved this way had it really happened but we’ll never know.
Even so, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is still well worth watching. It’s interesting that this film is coming to Hong Kong as Mister Rogers is not part of the culture here. Most locals have never heard of his TV show. Because of that, I don’t expect the film to last very long in the cinema before it goes to the subscription services.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 7th, 8:30 am HK time!
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