CVIndependent

Fri08072020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, is a beautiful film. It’s whimsical, sweet, complicated and full of warmth—just like that polite guy who used to put on his cardigan for children for many years on PBS.

Who plays Fred “Mister Rogers” Rogers in this movie? Why, Tom Hanks, of course. You don’t get more perfect casting than the world’s most likable actor playing one of history’s most likable guys. The recent reveal that Hanks is an actual sixth cousin of Rogers is no surprise.

Hanks plays Rogers in an honorable way. He doesn’t impersonate the man so much as adapt some of his mannerisms, his winning smile and that slow, concerned cadence in his voice. The performance stands as a terrific homage to a wonderful person.

Actually, Fred Rogers is a supporting player (albeit a mighty important and present one) in this heartfelt movie from director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). The main protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys of The Americans), a troubled journalist (loosely based on Junod) who grumbles upon getting an assignment to do a profile on the PBS icon—the guy with a “hokey” TV show—for Esquire.

The two at first talk on the phone, but Lloyd eventually journeys to WQED in Pittsburgh, home of the beloved TV show, to see the master in action. Rogers instantly starts interviewing the journalist as much as the journalist is interviewing him, and Lloyd bristles at first. But over the course of the film, Rogers and Lloyd become friends, and Rogers helps Lloyd in his dealings with a dying father (an excellent Chris Cooper); his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson of This Is Us); and his newborn son.

Heller brilliantly frames her film as an episode of the TV show, starting with Hanks delivering the famous welcome song, and then introducing Lloyd Vogel as a friend who needs help. As the characters travel to different cities, those cities are depicted like the train sets that had a presence throughout the TV show. It truly does give one the sense that an episode of Neighborhood is playing out.

Much of the film is indeed fiction; for starters, there is no evidence of the father-son relationship at the center of this film in Tom Junod’s original article, “Can You Say … Hero?” Fictional or not, the handling of the father-son relationship is heart-wrenchingly good, and Junod has acknowledged that the friendship Heller displays in her movie is much like the one he had with Rogers.

I have a new appreciation for Fred Rogers as an adult. He always weirded me out when I was a kid; I was more interested in being entertained by The Electric Company and Sesame Street than by the guy with the sweater. Still, I did watch a lot of his shows before and after my favorites. In retrospect, I realize that Mister Rogers taught me more about life and my fellow human beings than any of those other children’s shows ever did. There was a warmth to the show—a warmth that made a bullied, antisocial younger kid such as me a little uncomfortable, just like Lloyd Vogel in this movie. As I grew older, I lightened up a bit … just like Lloyd Vogel in this movie.

I think a lot of people will feel similarly after seeing this movie. It’s going to open up heads and hearts, and perhaps even make you cry a bit. It’s going to make you love Tom Hanks even more than you do now, if that’s possible. And it’s going to fortify your precious remembrance of Fred Rogers—the sweet guy in the sweater who talked right at you from the TV screen, be it with his haggard puppets or ever-present smile.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Perhaps the most important journalistic battle in American history gets the Spielberg treatment in The Post, featuring a stellar cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The film explores The Washington Post’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam in 1971, a move that raised the ire of then-President Richard Nixon, and put the careers of people like paper owner Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in major jeopardy. Of course, Hanks isn’t the first movie star to play Bradlee: Jason Robards also played him in All the President’s Men, the classic film that covered the Watergate scandal. Bradlee, who died in 2014, was a journalism giant.

The movie starts in the mid-’60s with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a member of the State Department who is a study for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in South Vietnam. Embedded with American troops, Ellsberg sees all sorts of atrocities and is a firsthand witness to the growing failure of American participation in the Vietnam War. His forecast about the war’s outcome is bleak, but McNamara and President Johnson (and three presidents before him) share a rosier—and false—version with the American public.

In 1971, with Nixon in the White House, Hanks and Streep get their first scene together: They’re in a restaurant having breakfast, discussing their big controversy of the day—the White House’s meddling with their ability to cover the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Bradlee refuses to bend to Nixon’s request to restrict a certain reporter, while Graham wonders what the big deal is. This scene is long, dialogue-rich take—and it’s basically a school in great acting.

Things progress from troubles with weddings to the war, with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers by Ellsberg, and The New York Times printing a story about them. This move gets the Times in trouble with the Nixon administration. Bradlee and his team come into contact with Ellsberg and get the opportunity to go through thousands of pages of classified documents. They have two options: Print a deeper story on the classified documents and face potential treason charges; or bury the story to help preserve the paper, which is going through an initial public stock offering and would likely be harmed by any negative controversy.

History has told us what Graham, Bradlee and their team of reporters did—but that doesn’t make The Post any less thrilling. Spielberg not only uses The Post as an opportunity to put great actors in play; he makes The Post a grand testament to the golden age of print journalism.

It’s not just the risk-taking of editors, owners and journalists that makes The Post such an absorbing piece of history. The mechanics of producing a story for the masses in the 1970s were a little complicated by today’s standards: Journalists seeking leads with rotary phones and pay phones, and hard deadlines that had to be hit because it took a lot of time to actually publish a newspaper each day, play a big part in the storytelling. Spielberg relishes the chance to show a story getting rolled up on typed paper, shot through an internal delivery system to an editor, edited by a man with a pencil, and then placed on a costly template for publication. The sight of massive amounts of paper getting printed and then bound to be taken to the streets is one of Spielberg’s most impressive technical filmmaking feats in years.

The supporting cast includes Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the legendary TV comedians of Mr. Show. It’s a trip to see them onscreen together in a Spielberg production. Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson round out the cast.

The Post is the best Spielberg offering since Munich, bringing to an end one of the weaker stretches in his career that included the lackluster Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The BFG. It’s an impressively staged account of a pivotal moment in our history—at a time when the freedom of the press is again being actively challenged by a sitting president.

The Post is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews