It will be interesting to see how Australian audiences respond to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, a film about an American icon whose message of love never reached our shores.
Those who know Fred Rogers’ work will take great value and solace from the film’s story, while those who are unfamiliar may take it on face value. Those are two very different outcomes, which are considered in this review. It is a wonderful film, and for newcomers to the story of Mister Rogers, the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is a great place to acquaint yourself.
Fred Rogers was a children’s television presenter and pubic broadcaster whose program Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood educated kids and shaped young minds for over 30 years. His message was always one of love, with early childhood development being his life’s work; he addressed social issues and subjects that no one else would dare. To emphasise the impact of his work seems impossible, and it’s hard to articulate how profound his legacy is. And so director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) has approached her film from an outsider’s perspective, using a famous Esquire magazine article to encapsulate the essence of his work.
Utilising investigative journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 article “Can You Say… Hero?” as the basis of the film, the story follow’s Junod’s assignment to write 400 words on Mister Rogers, and chronicles his own personal struggles and the part that Mister Rogers played in helping him overcome his demons. Junod’s persona has been fictionalised as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and what begins as a short article soon evolves into a full-blown front-page feature.
The film is set towards the latter part of Mister Rogers’ career – with his legacy firmly cemented – and newcomers may not comprehend the magnitude of the character at hand. Surprisingly, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is very much Vogel’s story, with Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) actually serving as a moral compass. Of course we are taken behind the scenes of the famous television show and we get to see the impact of Mister Rogers’ work throughout America, and yet it is Vogel’s life that we care about most. This approach is, in itself, the personification of Mister Rogers and all that he represents. 30 years of television was never actually about him.
Sincere, heartwarming and delightful are some ways to describe the film. Uplifting, emotional and reassuring are others. In fact, a dozen more positive adjectives could sum it all up, including the words Oscar and Bait. Of course this is a film with prestige on its mind. It takes many of the earlier documentary’s keynotes and depicts them sequentially, bundling 30+ years of heritage into one small and fully contained package. In this regard it will be advantageous to those unaware of Mister Rogers, but to fans it may offer a point of frustration. We are not given his life’s story, as we might have expected, but instead are compensated with some other guy’s life.
Tom Hanks steps into Fred Rogers’ shoes (and sneakers) very comfortably, taking on the nuances and character traits with ease; his portrayal is well measured and on point, save for a vaguely romanticised spin. His likeness is remarkable and there’s a sense that Hanks took great pride in portraying such an important figure. Likewise, Matthew Rhys is excellent as the depressed and broken man who doesn’t recognise his own despair. Rhys is the real lead of the film and his performance is superb. Susan Kelechi Watson, Enrico Calantoni and Chris Cooper also lend respectable support, rounding out a strong ensemble.
In reality Mister Rogers addressed serious contemporary issues with his target audience, such as racism, bullying, depression, death and whatever other scary things were broadcast on television. He once explained the term “assassination” to his young audience when Robert Kennedy was murdered. And while there are so many examples on record of his ability to nurture impressionable minds, very few of these find their way into A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. Being that it is not a biopic in the traditional sense, there just isn’t enough room for all of that.
Therefore the film’s greatest attribute is its ability to embody Rogers’ overriding message of love and compassion… and it dishes that stuff up in spades. You won’t miss a particularly powerful scene where the film offers an introspective moment for the viewer to particulate in the story. It’s very moving.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is the feel-good film of the season and destined for accolades. If you’re not moved by these men’s stories then you might want to consider whether you have a heart.
In cinemas: January 23, 2020
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper
Directed by: Marielle Heller