Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.
Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.
Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.
Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.
This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.
Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.
In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.