"Anything that is mentionable is manageable." — Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks)
Why do we need A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood?
This is what I wondered about the new biopic about the late Fred Rogers when we already had the 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which presented the story in presented in memorable fashion.
I was delighted to discover that director Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't a dramatized recap of Rogers' life and struggles against Washington's threats to cut funding for his show. Instead, it's a "based on a true story" dramatization of reporter Tom Junod's famed Esquire article “Can You Say ... Hero??
Junod's name is changed to Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys (TV's The Americans) as a cynic damaged by his father (Chris Cooper), and fearful of his own role as a new dad. Will Lloyd repeat the same mistakes? Will he plunge so deeply into his work that his absence will isolate him from the possibility of failure? As he ponders these questions, Lloyd is assigned a magazine piece on Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). Resentful at what he considers a waste of his journalistic time on a "fluff" piece, Lloyd is unnerved by Fred Rogers' apparent sincerity and begins to wonder exactly who's interviewing whom.
Lloyd's emotional difficulties with fatherhood and stress with his dad are spiced up somewhat from Junod's own real-life experiences, but Rhys manages a fine and sincere performance, electing to allow expression and posture to do most of the acting rather than exposition, and Academy Award winner Cooper (Best Supporting Actor for 2002's Adaptation) is equally strong, as is Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd's wife. Nevertheless, we all know the film's going to sink or swim on Tom Hanks' performance as Fred Rogers.
Joaquin Phoenix didn't look or sound anything like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, yet he transcended those drawbacks to become Cash. It's the same with Hanks as Rogers. He looks practically nothing like him, and other than playing the role soft-spoken, he sounds nothing like him. But somehow none of that matters. He is Rogers, utterly convincing as he surprises Lloyd and the audience by being the sincere, compassionate, dedicated man he outwardly projects.
Over the course of Hanks' career, much of it spent playing real-life people — from astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 to Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks — he's convinced American audiences that he is much like Rogers: a humble, quiet, ordinary man who embodies the ideals many of us aspire to, but which so few of us ever attain. Who else could have played Rogers and been even remotely credible?
For the sheer quiet power of his performance, I believe Hanks will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. No, not Best Actor, because he's not the star. Indeed, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't really even about Fred Rogers, but about the effect Rogers had on people who met him, about the effect he still has on us nearly 17 years after his death.
There must be a reason — or reasons — why documentaries and dramatic films about his life and legacy are appearing now. Maybe all we have to do to understand is to look at the front page of a newspaper, listen to five minutes of the evening news, or glance at our favorite social media pages. Americans hate each other, want to kill each other, have retreated so far from the civil, supportive, child-nurturing society that Rogers advocated.
He was and is that rare beacon who lit the path we can take. If we remember and emulate Rogers, maybe we can get at least a little closer to the neighborhood.