Watching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” one inescapable truth came to the fore: I am a cynical human being. Technically I knew this before I sat down to watch this inspired-by-reality tale of Mr. Rogers’ influence on the life of a journalist, but the movie throws it into stark relief.
Played by Tom Hanks, Mr. Rogers (“Fred Rogers” technically, but that doesn’t feel right and I won’t be writing it again) comes across in this movie as an insanely nice, ridiculously compassionate, truly caring man. He is such a person whether on camera recording a part of his television show or simply sitting at home playing piano with his wife. During an interview conducted by Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) for an article on heroes, Vogel tries to separate the TV character from the real man, asking something about what the real Mr. Rogers is like. “Yes!” I thought watching the movie, “This is it, we’re going to get a look behind the curtain, find out who Mr. Rogers really was, this is why we are here!” Mr. Rogers looks back at Vogel perplexed by the question.
Of course he does. That’s the point. That’s what I hadn’t yet gotten because of my cynicism – there is no differentiation between the on screen Mr. Rogers and the off. The man on the television is not a character, that’s just Mr. Rogers.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is much more Vogel’s story, one of estrangement from his father and the difficulties he is facing with his wife and newborn, than it is of Mr. Rogers, but Vogel is entirely a way to get at the Mr. Rogers philosophy. The movie makes no bones about the fact that once Lloyd Vogel accepts that his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), made mistakes, and Lloyd opens his heart to forgiveness, he’ll finally be happy in his role as husband to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and father to his baby.
Directed by Marielle Heller and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster (inspired by an article from Tom Junod), this look at one work in the life of Mr. Rogers is touching and, as the title says, beautiful. Heller’s direction keeps the events of the film human in scale – they are huge to Vogel and his family, but there’s clearly very much more happening in the world as a whole, and that world doesn’t care about Vogel’s problems. And because of that, because the world doesn’t care, Mr. Rogers does. As Mr. Rogers puts it, the most important person in the world to him is whomever he is currently speaking with. It is more than touching, it is piercing.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the movie is it’s changing aspect ratio. When we are in the world of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” it is a classic television ratio of 4:3, and when we are in the real world, it is a standard film ratio (I believe 1.85:1, but I wouldn’t swear without measuring). It’s a cue that clues in the audience about what we’re seeing and where it’s happening. And then, during a pivotal moment in the film, the moment when Vogel really gets it, Heller stays in 1.85:1 but frames the action in an wide archway inside a home, with darkness on the sides, essentially cropping the image to 4:3. It is 1.85:1 but it feels 4:3. – Vogel gets it; he understands the importance of accepting Mr. Rogers’ philosophy and all the good that can bring. Vogel has made the real world just a little bit more like Mr. Rogers’ world.
The entire film is full of such touches and it will bring a tear to your eye. Rhys is wonderful as the emotional basket case that is Lloyd Vogel (and all of us), but Tom Hanks is perfection as Mr. Rogers. One cannot imagine any other actor stepping into those shoes and pulling off the honest, forthright, caring man whom millions grew up watching on television. Hanks’ real world persona as one of the nicest people you could ever meet (and I would kill for such an opportunity) helps allow the audience to accept this portrayal. There is not an ounce of sarcasm or snideness, cynicism or jest, in Hanks’ effort.
The rest of the cast, which includes Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster, and Maryann Plunkett, all deliver as well, but the movie belongs to Hanks. He offers a delicateness that comes across with every word and action. It is as loving a portrayal as the man being portrayed.
In the end, the Vogel story is not as compelling as one would wish and the extended portions where it is being told without Mr. Rogers appearing have a tendency to drag. However, it is all made better once the man in the cardigan sweater appears.
We live in a world, and I’m a part of it, which is overly sarcastic. We don’t trust one another as we might and have good reasons for our defensive mechanisms. What “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” shows is that with a little bit of kindness and love and empathy, that world could be a better place. Mr. Rogers did what he could to bring about such a world and we would all do well to follow him.
Seeing this movie is a great start.
photo credit: Sony Pictures