In 1998, award winning journalist Tom Junod wrote a piece for Esquire magazine called ‘Can you say…Hero ?’. This article, a biography of Fred Rogers, was the basis for the movie ‘A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood’, and several of the events and anecdotes in the script come directly from the article. Junod was a fairly hard-hitting journalist (his two National Journalist Awards were for articles called ‘The Abortionist’ and ‘The Rapist Says Sorry’) but his article about Fred Rogers is notable for its simplistic style and sentence construction - how an adult might talk to a child.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie without slipping into an analysis of the impact of Fred Rogers and his show on American culture. Heck, in the movie a subway train full of school kids spontaneously burst into a word perfect rendition of his show’s theme song, you don’t get more culturally influential than that. The article and this movie set out to show us that through the dogged application of empathy, honesty, openness and gentleness, people - and that includes children - can learn to feel better about themselves, and hopefully be better towards others. And Fred Rogers is absolutely dogged, applying goodness and selflessness in every situation in his life. Is it an act ? Is he playing a character for the cameras ? Lloyd Vogel, the journalist sent to profile him in the movie is determined to discover this, but comes to realize that if Fred Rogers is acting, then it is an act which consumes and permeates his entire life, off and on screen. Not being able to ‘out’ Mr Rogers unsettles Lloyd’s world, to the point that he breaks down in the face of his own unresolved issues with his father.
Any human being on the planet who has any idea about Hollywood knows that Tom Hanks is the perfect choice to play Mr Rogers. He has history in playing ‘heroic’ figures in biopics (Sully, Captain Phillips, Walt Disney) and he is to some extent our own everyman, universally liked, with a willingness to share his life with his fans. I honestly think the turning point in people’s approach to Coronavirus was when Tom and Rita got ill - that made it so real for many people. Hanks is brilliant at the gentle voice, the almost-smirk of a smile, all the physical stuff, but he also does a great job at embodying the resolute simpleness of Mr Rogers life. But for acting brilliance, nothing rivals the diner scene when Tom Hanks, as Fred, imperceptibly moves from looking at Lloyd, as the room falls silent, to looking at you - yes, you - directly through the camera and into your soul. It’s chilling, moving and empowering all at the same time. Superb.
Acting plaudits should also go to Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel. From the start, we know that despite his hard-bitten, cynical journalist schtick, there are some deep faults in Lloyd’s character, and Rhys is excellent at letting Fred Rogers tease them out of him gradually almost without realizing it. His ultimate breakdown is the stuff of fantasy as he appears on the set with the puppets in one of Fred’s shows, and is signaled by the nice insertion of the neighborhood models for moving some scenes along. Lloyd’s wife Andrea is played by Susan Kelechi Watson from This Is Us, who is a naturally good actress and should definitely be in more things.
Despite the childish simplicity of Junod’s original article, it contains some pretty rough vocabulary (including 10 F-bombs) and some pretty salient life lessons. Tom Junod acknowledged that his meetings with Fred Rogers for the article changed his entire outlook on life for the better. I’m not a religious person, but if I ever had to describe what faith looked like in real-life, it would be Fred Rogers doing his simple thing, day after day, trusting that he is gradually changing people and the world for the better. I challenge anyone to watch this movie and not think that there is something in here to help everyone do better. Adults and children alike.
STOP PRESS - We're doing a bonus screening of HAMILTON, the stage show movie, this Saturday 11th July. Tickets are available here and are going quickly. You must reserve your place in advance so we can manage the social distancing measures.