It was 1996 when Jerry Maguire told Dorothy Boyd, “We live in a cynical world. A cynical…world…”and if anything, in the 23 years since those words were spoken, it’s only become a more cynical place. Add on to that the fact the rise of social media and the stranglehold it has on the majority of society. Through it many choose to attack one another, bring each other down, or simply spew out negativity because that’s just the go-to emotion when it comes to expressing one’s self these days – especially when that someone is able to hide behind a faceless online persona.
The negativity we face each day when we wake up can often seem overwhelming and once it takes hold it can be a hard feeling to shake, yet an easy one to spread. Now, as nice as it’d be to say that the world around us is going to change for the better in the near future, that would unfortunately be naive, so the best I can do is say that just because the world will continue down the same track, it doesn’t mean we have to follow suit. In fact, you can choose to jump on a different trolley altogether. Might I recommend the one that leads to Mr. Roger’s neighborhood?
Now, I grew up with Mr. Rogers during the ’80s and while I do remember various parts of the show, I didn’t understand just how special he was when it came to being a children’s television presenter. I mean, to say that isn’t giving him near enough credit, as he was so much more than just the on-air personality, he was also the creator and showrunner for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as well as a writer, producer, musician, puppeteer as well as a Presbyterian minister. What was truly special about Fred Rogers was how he dealt with people – specifically children through his TV show – helping them understand that it’s okay to feel and express your emotions, be it anger, sadness, confusion or joy, instead of bottling them up or pretending everything is fine when it isn’t.
In the incredible, must-see documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Fred mentions that when he would talk to the camera, he’d envision himself talking to one child out there. This allowed every child to be that one child that Mr. Rogers was speaking to throughout the show, which helped form an important bond that made the words he spoke mean something to everyone watching. That’s the same sort of idea that Director Marielle Heller has taken with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, though instead of Mr. Rogers talking to the viewer through the camera, he’s doing so by helping the film’s protagonist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys.)
The year is 1998 and Lloyd is an investigative journalist that works for Esquire magazine, though due to his cynicism he’s built up a reputation as someone nobody wants writing a story on them. So, his editor gives him as assignment for their upcoming issue on heroes, and he’s told to write a 400-word piece on Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks,) as he’s told nobody else will let him cover them aside from Mr. Rogers.
Now, what basically needs to be known about Lloyd is that he’s a pretty miserable guy. I mean, he’s happy in some regard. He has a beautiful wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and a baby boy, so he has his life on track in that regard; however, emotionally, he’s suppressing anger and sadness from his childhood that he blames on his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper.) You see, Jerry ran out on Lloyd and his sister when they were kids, leaving Lloyd to care for his dying mother. He doesn’t talk about this, but when Jerry shows up and tries to mend the bridges, Lloyd won’t have it and chooses instead to focus on his task of interviewing Fred Rogers.
Lloyd heads to WQED studio in Pittsburgh, where Mister Roger’s Neighborhood is being filmed. He’s told that they’re 30-minutes behind schedule, and that’s when he looks over and sees Fred on stage talking to a young boy who is sick, with tubes in his nose and an oxygen tank by his side. The boy is acting up and the parents are apologizing, but Fred Rogers is beyond patient, completely calm and keeps his focus on the boy. After a few moments, the boy connects with Fred’s words, puts down the plastic sword he’s been swinging around and hugs Mr. Rogers, who is thrilled to have broken through the child’s defences.
Lloyd asks the crew how often this happens, and they say every day. Finally able to begin production, they call action and as soon as the cameras begin to role, Fred notices Lloyd, walks off the stage and embraces him, genuinely happy that he’s made the trip. Their first interview is brief, and it’s here that we see just the type of man that Fred Rogers was, as instead of focusing on how he’s being written up as a hero, he instead inquires about Lloyd’s emotional state, and what happened to him to bring him to the place he is now. While Lloyd tries to turn the conversation back towards Fred, their lunch break ends and Fred has to get back to work.
Lloyd doesn’t believe it’s possible that a man can be this patient, this friendly and selfless, and so he begins to research Fred deeper, all while his life continues to spiral out of control emotionally. Now, you may not have such an extreme reason to be harboring anger or sadness within as Lloyd does, but as I mentioned, the way Heller handles the direction of the film makes it so that while Lloyd’s problems are clear to the audience, they’re also interchangeable with anything the viewer may be going through. So, while Lloyd is interacting with Fred Rogers, it really does feel as though Mr. Rogers is talking to each one of us, no matter what it is we may be dealing with deep down.
It’s a magical feat, and in doing so Heller captures the essence of who Fred Rogers was and what he hoped to achieve with every interaction he had. He wanted whomever it was that he was talking with to feel like they were the only one in the room, and that they were truly special, because Fred honestly believed that in his core. It also helps to have a superb actor like Hanks in the role, as he also completely embodies everything that was Mr. Rogers, both on screen and off – which isn’t too hard, as they were the same person. Hanks and Rhys have great chemistry together, with Hanks perfectly handling the calm, patient aura that always encompassed Fred. It’s just a breathtaking performance that speaks for itself, with the smart decision to allow Hanks to do the work instead of hiding him behind prosthetics. That’s not to say that going that route is wrong or a cop out, it’s just that here even though we see Tom Hanks, we’re watching Fred Rogers. It’s just magic.
This is one of those scenarios where A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t perfect, yet it’s still a perfect movie. In a world full of cynicism, Fred Rogers was roaring fire of empathy and kindness, and while it’s not easy (as even Fred had to find ways to deal with his own emotions) if we could each just keep a spark of that fire within us, then it really could begin to make a difference – even if only within our own lives, and to those we love around us. It’s not something that can happen overnight, and that’s okay.
The film looks fantastic and sounds wonderful. The film travels back and forth between locations using models to replicate the world of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood throughout, which gives the story its rightful mystical vibe right out of the gate. The choice to have Mister Roger’s TV show shot in 4:3 was also a great choice, and everything fits together seamlessly. The music by Nate Heller and soundtrack all give off the patient aura of Fred Rogers as well. Everything feels like it’s moving at the proper, gentle pacing, picking up where it needs to, but all intertwining together in a way that just works exactly right.
Audio Commentary – Director Marielle Heller and Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes keep the same vibe of the film going in their commentary. It’s definitely worth listening to, as Heller is one to keep an eye on. Solid track all around.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers – This feature is just over 10-minutes in length and delves into Hanks as Fred Rogers, how he chose to go about portraying the man, the decision to go with simple make-up and a wig, and things like that. It’s a quick and entertaining watch.
The People Who Make a Neighborhood: The Making Of – This feature is just over 15-minutes in length and sees Hanks dressed as Mr. Rogers, going around introducing the viewer to those who helped make the movie, as well as showing us around the set. A little educational jaunt around the studio, if you will.
Dreaming Big, Building Small: The Puppets & Miniatures – This feature is just under 9-minutes in length and focuses on the recreation of Fred’s puppets, as well as what went into performing with them.
Blooper Reel – This is a 98-second, well, blooper reel! It’s clear to see that this was a fun set to be on, and Hanks is quite the character himself.
Daniel Tiger Explains: Practice Makes Perfect – This featurette is just under 3-minutes and sort of gives Daniel’s perspective on the blooper reel.
Deleted & Extended Scenes – For those interested, there are a number of these to go through.
Sony Pictures Presents A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Directed by: Marielle Heller. Written by: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster. Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni. Running time: 109 Minutes. Rating: PG. Released on Blu-ray: Feb. 18, 2020.
Tags: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Chris Cooper, Enrico Colantoni, Fred Rogers, Marielle Heller, Maryann Plunkett, Matthew Rhys, Mister Rogers, Mr. Rogers, Susan Kelechi Watson, Tom Hanks