Mr. Rodgers doesn’t feel like he should be part of this world. His gentleness, kindness, and saint-like patience seem better placed in the world of make-believe — right next to King Friday XIII and Daniel Tiger.
Until the recent (and excellent documentary) from Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, there’s been an air of incredulity surrounding Mr. Rodgers. Wasn’t he a marine in Vietnam? Doesn’t he have 27 confirmed kills? Did he wear sweaters because he was sleeved with tattoos?
None are true, but they all speak to the same jaded suspicion: No one could be that good, that understanding. Surely there had to be a dark side.
A dark side? Not really. Anger, frustration, and despair? Absolutely. Born 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred Rodgers was no earthly saint, just a man who believed strongly in two things: Using words to express our feelings and the distance between the television screen and the viewer. He considered this space holy ground, and for anyone who’s sat transfixed in front of a screen and watched the world open up before them, no term is more applicable.
The new narrative film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, from writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and directed by Marielle Heller, addresses both of these aspects of Mr. Rodgers: The skepticism with which adults approached Mr. Rodgers, and that holy ground and how he used it.
Constructed like an episode of Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood, A Beautiful Day opens with Mr. Rodgers (Tom Hanks, perfect) singing his patented welcome song and introducing us to his friend Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a broken man in desperate need of fixing. Mr. Rodgers shifts the story from his neighborhood to New York City — Heller and company illustrate scene changes using miniatures similar to Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood — and picks up Lloyd in his environment as a tough-as-nails investigative reporter, married with a young child.
Lloyd is the kind of journalist who revels in exposing corruption, holding the powerful accountable, and burying the guilty — he must be a legal nightmare for his editor. But Esquire is working on a series of profiles of new American heroes, and Lloyd draws Mr. Rodgers. He balks at the assignment, but if he wants to keep his job, he’ll need 400 words on the children’s TV host.
If you were to ask Lloyd to list his primary assets, he’d probably count anger and pain at the top of the list. Both come gifted via a shitty father (Chris Cooper). And if Lloyd isn’t careful, he’s going to follow suit. The chance to spend time with Mr. Rodgers seems impeccable.
Mr. Rodgers doesn’t know Lloyd’s troubles, but he seems to sense it. He seems to sense a lot of things others can’t. It is his gift, but he did not come by it by accident. One of A Beautiful Day’s best aspects is how honestly it deals with Mr. Rodgers’ demeanor. He can seem naïve at times, aloof others. But he never is. He knows that a kind smile is just as disarming as a punch to the nose. But, the smile accomplishes more.
It would be wrong to call Mr. Rodgers or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood calculating, but simple acts of kindness and understanding, placed in all the right spots, slowly breakdown Lloyd and help him mend the damage of his family. Then Mr. Rodgers speaks four simple words: “Anything mentionable is manageable.” And you realize Hanks and Heller have been conspiring to breakdown you.
It’s the same trick Mr. Rodgers was so adept with on his TV show: The even voice, the familiar sets, the handmade puppets, the simplicity of it all. It drew you in, disarmed you, and taught a lesson or two. What happened on screen was about a child-like tiger puppet learning to not be afraid. And by the time that message made it across the room and found you sitting on the couch, you were thinking of your father. Holy ground indeed.
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Inspired by the Esquire article, “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Jundo
Produced by Youree Henley, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett
Sony Pictures, Running time 108 minutes, Rated PG, Opens Nov. 22, 2019