Having recently seen last year’s documentary on Fred Rogers, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, I was primed to view more about this American icon who lovingly affirmed me during my often troubled childhood. I had some initial reservations about Tom Hanks playing the main character in the movie A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. During the opening scene, he seemed like an impostor– for about five minutes. This sense soon melted away as I witnessed the skilled actor so effectively relay the mannerisms and facial expressions of someone I felt I’ve known since I was three or four years old, when I regularly watched MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD.
Inspired by actual events, the movie takes place in 1998, during which cynical investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned to interview Fred Rogers for his employer, the magazine ESQUIRE. Preoccupied with estrangement from his alcohol-abusing father and used to writing sensational exposes, Lloyd reluctantly accepts what he feels is a “fluff” project on a modern “hero.” What follows is nothing short of life-changing and poignant for Lloyd and those around him. He experiences being the subject as much as the interviewer. A deep relationship develops between him and Rogers.
Through Fred Rogers’s trademark soft-spoken voice, steady eye contact, small silences, and genuine interest in whoever he was talking with, Tom Hanks embodies this perpetually open-hearted man who touched so many lives. I felt myself buoyed along in an encompassing calm warmth, which often brought tears to my eyes. As I suspected there would be, an accompanying wistfulness arose as I recalled feeling this warm calm each time while watching Mister Rogers’s half hour show so long ago. One particularly succinct and powerful scene (among many) in the movie evoked these nuanced emotions so palpably. After dealing poorly with a family crisis, Lloyd goes with Mister Rogers to a restaurant for lunch. Fred asks the journalist to sit in silence with him for one minute while thinking of those who have “loved you into being.” The other patrons stop eating and talking, joining the two men in this quiet moment. The camera pans across the room, showing contemplative faces, including that of Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow, who apparently was glad to lend her approving presence in this project. I also participated, thinking of my parents, grandmother, sister, and husband until the minute was up. I was willing to go longer.
The truth for me is that I often felt wistful at the end of an episode of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Undivided, loving attention paired with music and creative, always understandable, imaginings (such as talking puppets) are a heady, soothing mix. Every time he was on-screen, Tom Hanks tapped right into that unique, genuine soothing presence of Fred Rogers, leaving me wanting it to never end, or at least not for a good while.
I think anyone who grew up watching Mister Rogers’s wonderful children’s show will likely come away feeling moved, possibly even inspired, after viewing A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Personally, I’m now inspired to be more attentive to the moment, such as the one I’ll happen to be sharing with the next client sitting in my office. But, also, I am now more aware of the priceless moments with members of my family, blood and chosen. It is rare for me that a feature film is so positively affecting. Perhaps it will even be so for those who did not watch Fred Rogers in their childhood and are introduced to him through this screen drama, which comes across as nothing short of a labor of love.