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28 Nov 2019

A Neighborly Masterpiece: Tom Hanks Is Brilliant as Mister Rogers in 'A Beautiful Day'

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Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

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.

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