A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isnt a movie about Mr. Rogers. Its a movie about us.
Technically, its about Tom Junod, a journalist who profiled Fred Rogers for Esquire in 1998. The resulting article, Can You Say…Hero? chronicles the litany of good deeds Junod witnesses Rogers perform throughout the day, often simple acts with seismic effects on the people he encounters. It ends with Rogers asking Junod to pray with him, a moment that changed his life completely: who he was as a journalist, as a father, and as a man.
Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, the fictional stand-in for Junod, a writer already fragile from his own cynicism who is nearly broken by his deadbeat fathers attempts to reconnect with him shortly after the birth of his son. Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers, the minister who became a childrens TV host then beacon of hope for a struggling society, and also the person who saves Lloyd.
Its a movie about how much Lloyd (and Junod) needed Mr. Rogers at that time in his life. Its about how much we need Mr. Rogers right now. Its about how much we need Tom Hanks right now. Its about how much we need a movie in which Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers right now.
Directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and out Friday, its a sensitive portrait of an unlikely friendship. Lloyd doesnt get the whole Mr. Rogers schtick. But spending time with him, being a direct, in-person benefactor of the icons surprisingly workmanlike investment in other peoples well-being, hes convinced. They forge a bond that is nothing short of profound.
Along the way the film illuminates some truths that are just generally good life advice. Being unhappy doesnt make you more interesting. Being unforgiving doesnt mean youre strong. It may be easier to motivate people by appealing to their fears rather than their love, but it isnt as productive. Feelings are manageable.
By virtue of the films existence in this formabout Fred Rogers, at least in part, and starring Tom Hanksit is inherently, too, a film about niceness and what that means to us today, if it means anything at all.
Of course, Tom Hanks isnt only nice. Hes a human, and humans arent just one thing, especially if the one thing is nice. But its nice to think of him that way, even if we know were being silly. Mr. Rogers wasnt only nice. But it was nice to think of him that way, too. Its still nice to think of him that way. Its not silly. Its necessary. What would we do if we found out that Mr. Rogers wasnt nice? Or, maybe worse, Tom Hanks?
Part of the brilliance of Junods Esquire article is how it made the point that yes, Mr. Rogers is a hero, but a hero is also just a man. In the film, when Lloyds wife learns of his assignment, knowing his penchant for taking the piss out of the people he profiles, she pleads, Oh lord, Lloyd. Please dont ruin my childhood.
Rogers was so sincere, without a shred of irony, that people would wonder whether a person that sincere could possibly exist today. But Hanks, to most, is actually that person, which is what makes this such great casting. A certain skepticism, the fear that Lloyds wife voices, accompanies that. Journalists have spent Hanks entire career spelunking for juicy gossip, desperate for a gotcha that would expose some grave evil or scandalous vice thats been lurking beneath Hollywoods Nicest Guy all along, as if it would somehow be more comforting to know he was a misogynist or a lousy drunk or something.
Theyve all come up short, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner discovers in her recent New York Times magazine profile of Hanks, which cannily checks the same boxes Junods profile of Rogers did. He really is that friendly, civil, generous, and kind. In fact, a publicist at one point even relays concern that yet another story about how nice Tom Hanks is could be bad press, that something so boring and expected would hurt the film, or diminish the accomplishment of the excellent acting and transformation he pulls off.
But the profile has the same effect of Can You Say…Hero? Even in confirming that Hanks could very well be a living saint, it makes the best-yet case that he is tangibly, relatably real. Its we who are so unfamiliar with basic decency today that we refuse to believe that a person like Hanks who casually exhibits it could possibly be a normal human being.
Junod, or Lloyd in the film, is disoriented to the point of suspicion when he encounters Fred Rogers. The world with Mr. Rogers seems off its axis. In Lloyds world, there is chaos and pain and cynicism and anger and hate. Worse, there are no tools to process those things. This world where Mr. Rogers is as good as hes supposed to be? Where he has the tools to dig through the badness and come out on the other side? More, hes willing to share them with youinsists on it, even? That shouldnt exist.
But Mr. Rogers exists in our world, and in Lloyds world, too, which is its own disorienting fact. Its why, when he was alive, as Junod recounts in his article, people would combust with astonishment. Holy shit! Its Mister Fucking Rogers!
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred and Lloyd ride the subway. After staring and smiling at him, the straphangers on the train start singing the Mister Rogers Neighborhood theme song. Its a moment so pure and so genuine that it should be terrible, an unbelievable dramatization meant to emotionally manipulate and oversimplify our relationship to this hero. But its not that. Its perfect, one of the best movie scenes of the year. (It also actually happened.)
Even if briefly, we recognize that world. A world where strangers sing his shows theme song to Mr. Rogers on the subway is not the world we think we live in now, where everything is so awful and so scary and nearly everyone seems so horrible. But it is our world, in spite of that. The world we live in now still does have niceness in it.
But thats the Mr. Rogers ethos. He never pretended that the bad things in the world didnt exist. His neighborhood wasnt one of fantasy. The good and the bad exist together. What matters is how we deal with it. Theres always something you can do with the mad that you feel, he says. It takes Lloyd the entirety of the movie to realize that and figure out what to do with his own mad. As we look around at the encroaching nightmare that surrounds us, we wonder how long it will take us to figure it out now, too.
Were so starved for niceness today that weve turned fleeting examples of good things into obsessions. Its the year of Lizzo, of the Hot Priest, of Kelly Clarksons kellyoke, of the sorry to this man meme. We need reasons to be happy and we will milk those sources dry. Even the jaded among us are no longer finding fault in that.
Its canny, then, that before A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood screened for critics and reporters in New York earlier this month, it was preceded by a message from Joanne Rogers, Freds wife. She talks about how glad she is that the film is coming out now, as she can sense that we are hungry for kindness. She also jokes about how pleased Fred would have been to be played by Tom Hanks. In 2019, its a collision of niceness and kindness that would be parody were it not so needed, so exactly right, so true.
Recent years discussion of how necessary a person like Mr. Rogers isand whether its even possible for there to be another person like him, considering the ways in which society has evolved and digressedis, in a way, depressing.
Theres a dissonance between Rogers most famous lineWont you be my neighbor?and the times we live in, of extreme polarization, technology-induced isolation, a bankruptcy of empathy, and literal walls. His maxims like I like you just the way you are are just as radical as ever, when hatred is the societal mantra.
The posthumous resurrection of Mr. Rogers as some sort of savior is a reminder of how timeless hopelessness is. But theres also something encouraging about that discussion. Maybe we can be fixed. Its happened before.
Until he sings the phrase in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Id never heard or read Hanks say, Wont you be my neighbor? But it seems a version of what hes done in his career, and by living up to his mythical reputation. His characters invite us to empathize, to discover the strength in humanity and the surprising power of the ordinary, and to see ourselves in the struggles and triumphs of others. His public persona is a reminder that goodness is real.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers is in some ways, then, a public service. Its not just because its refreshing for there to be so much niceness on screen. Its a reminder of the ways in which we, whether weve realized it yet or not, are still capable of being a little like that, too.