When Fred Rogers was a young, he was a boy who was shy, overweight, suffering from asthma and was bullied. At times his only friends were his puppets. In 1951, Fred Rogers graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida with a degree in music composition. In 1963, he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as an ordained minister. It was also that same year that he became Mister Rogers the TV star for the first time. The original 15-minute children’s show was broadcast on CBC TV in Canada. It took another five years before Mister Rogers Neighborhood would air on PBS in America.
For 33 years, Mister Rogers, came into our homes, switched his loafers for sneakers and led us to the land of make believe every day from 1968 to 2001. He knew what we were thinking because he remembered being a kid himself. Instead of teaching children how to read words or count numbers, Rogers taught them how to cope. Rogers passed away in 2003 at the age of 74. While some of us didn’t appreciate this kind-hearted man while he was alive, we miss him more than ever today.
This weekend, TriStar Pictures presents a tribute to Fred Rogers with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, sharing the odd friendship between the almost saintly public television star and a bitter magazine columnist. The movie is based on real events that were recorded in Tom Junod’s article, “Can You Say…Hero?” for Esquire magazine in 1998 and Tim Madigan’s memoir, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers published in 2012. So while part of this movie was created in the land of make believe, there is a lot of truth that went into it borrowing facts from the two authors.
Directed by Marielle Heller (who directed last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? with Melissa McCartney), this movie begins with the familiar music and model street scene featured from the iconic show. The door opens and instead of Mister Rogers, it’s Tom Hanks. It’s even a bit creepy at first, but in a short time Hanks becomes the legendary icon right before our very eyes. The movie actually plays out like an actual episode of the famous show complete with a “speedy delivery” from Mr. McFeely and video shown on Picture Picture. On this “episode,” Mister Rogers begins to share about his good friend, journalist Lloyd Vogel and his need to forgive others. It’s a bizarre concept that’s funny and strange, but it works oddly well.
In the movie, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) has been assigned to do a short profile on Mister Rogers for Esquire’s special issue of modern day heroes. He’s less than thrilled with the assignment. Truth be told, none of the other heroes to be featured by the magazine wanted to be interviewed by Lloyd because of his talent for ripping them apart with his words.
Dragging his heels, Lloyd begins his journey of getting to know this Rogers guy and is surprised that the conversation begins with Rogers calling him at home. When the two meet face to face, Lloyd has to wait because Fred is busy talking to a child in-between takes while working on his show. While he waits, Lloyd doesn’t believe what he sees. Mister Rogers is just as nice in person as he portrays on TV if not a little eccentric. By the time the two get a chance to talk, their conversation is cut short, but Lloyd has already gotten more out of this encounter than he had planned for. What was supposed to be a quick interview, turns into an ongoing conversation that lasts for weeks.
You see, Lloyd has had a beef with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) and the two haven’t spoken in years but two face each other at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding and it raises some uncomfortable feelings in him. Lloyd is struggling in other ways as well. He’s a new father and his relationship with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is strained due to the fact that he is always gone.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a complicated story and just like the man who inspires it, it’s not in any hurry to tell its tale. Just as he’s done with countless children, Rogers recognizes similar pain in Lloyd’s eyes, so the two of them talk.
The film is almost as squeaky clean as Rogers’ former TV show, which seems appropriate. The old show is actually a character in the movie as well. Transition scenes use those same models used in the TV show. Lloyd even has dream where he is a character in the land of make believe. It’s a bit too meta for me, but honestly, it’s the film’s only flaw.
Heller goes to great lengths to give this film some authenticity even recreating appearances Fred made on TV shows like the Arsenio Hall Show and Oprah. To say that Hanks does a good job portraying Rogers in an understatement. Hanks has every look and cadence down pat and looks so natural doing it. He will no doubt will be up for another Oscar nomination for the role. But Rhys is very good as well. In fact, with Hank’s effortless-looking performance, it appears as if Rhys is doing all of the heavy lifting sparring with all of his co-actors. Watson is equally good as Lloyd’s long-suffering wife.
Some will be disappointed that the film doesn’t feature more of Roger’s Christian faith but it doesn’t actually shy away from it either. Fred was a man whose actions spoke louder than his soft words of encouragement. If this was faith-based movie, his faith might have even been overplayed. In the end, this is a film that encourages us to take every thought captive, to take responsibility for our actions, to find compassion for people who have wronged us, to ask for forgiveness to those we have hurt and to enjoy every little wonderful thing we find in this thing we call life.
Main Photo: TriStar Pictures
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.