How does one even begin to describe the life of Fred Rogers, who was such an icon—not just in children’s educational television—in modern American history? Well, the good news is that the topic of this review is not about the life of Rogers, but about the impact he had on other people who met him. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is directed by Marielle Heller and stars Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys and Chris Cooper.
The plot of the film is based on an article about Rogers written for Esquire Magazine in 1998. The story follows Matthew Rhys’ character, Lloyd Vogel, an accredited investigative journalist currently working for Esquire magazine. Lloyd’s editor, Ellen, tasks him with writing a profile piece on Rogers for their upcoming issue on heroes. Although Lloyd is against writing what he thinks is a puff piece, Ellen tells him that Rogers was the only one willing to speak with him. The others that were considered refused because they see Lloyd’s work as a takedown of their character.
At the same time, Lloyd’s life is undergoing some important changes: he and his wife, Andrea, have become new parents. More importantly, Lloyd runs into his estranged father, Jerry, at his sister’s wedding. Despite his father’s wishes, Lloyd refuses to forgive his father, who he feels abandoned him and his mother and sister long ago.
The story unravels as Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to meet with Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) at his studio. Although Mr. Rogers’ greets him with an overwhelmingly friendly demeanor, the journalist is suspicious of Fred, thinking he’s hiding something. Despite Lloyd’s attempts to ask the hard-hitting questions to suss out the truth, Fred constantly turns the interviews around, acting more as an on-call counselor to Lloyd and trying to get the journalist to open about his personal struggles. From there, the story ramps up the drama as Lloyd quickly becomes the interview subject to Fred Rogers, and Lloyd’s family situation worsens as Jerry is revealed to be dying and has little time left, forcing Lloyd to come to terms with the problems with his life.
The most striking aspect of the film from first viewing is the cinematography. The whole film is shot like an episode of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” including a miniature set and figurines for each scene transition, a 1:1 aspect ratio and grainy television footage. It’s during these segments that the film dips into the surreal, with the line between the diegesis and the audience becoming blurred, making the film anything but dull.
Stealing the show is the brilliant acting of both main characters, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys. Hanks’s portrayal of Rogers is so close to life, from the way he walks, to the way he speaks, that it’s almost a little too real. At the same time, special credit must be given to Rhys’ performance, who serves as an equal to Hanks, and acts like an audience surrogate as he opens up to Mr. Rogers about his personal struggles. I would be very surprised if both actors are not recognized for their performances come award season!
Lastly, the writing for the film is top notch. The film’s screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Tom Junod (the journalist who wrote the profile piece on Rogers) have written a powerful story here. The best example of this is a scene in the script where the two leads are sitting in a restaurant. In the sequence, Lloyd and Rogers share a moment of silence to think about, as Hanks’s character puts it, “those who loved us into being.” It’s a short scene in the script, but it’s one that sticks with you purely because of how it is masterfully written, despite the fact that there is no dialogue. The second-best example happens earlier on, when Lloyd and Rogers are taking a New York Subway train. As soon as the passengers recognize Mr. Rogers, they sing the theme song of his show, one by one, to which Lloyd can only look around himself in astonishment. Unlike the last scene, this one has dialogue, but still has the same power of pathos all around it.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not your average biopic, because this film is not about Fred Rogers, but instead about the unconditional love Mr. Rogers had for children and adults alike. It is a fantastic film and should be on the best of lists for 2019!
It is with a heavy heart that I must also say this will be the last article I write for The Quad. To all my readers, I thank you for staying with me and reading my work. I enjoyed writing it as much as I hope you enjoyed reading it. This is Kelly Baker: English Major, film buff, game buff and columnist for The Quad—signing off.
Kelly Baker is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in journalism and film criticism. KB819687@wcupa.edu