Synopsis: Cynical journalist interviews Mister Rogers, threatening mood of the whole neighborhood.
So good to see national treasure Daniel Tiger celebrated in a movie. Daniel is a shy puppet-cat who lives in a clock in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. He has a friend named Mister Rogers who talks to him about feelings. The man refers to the feline as Daniel Stry Ped Tiger. Daniel seems to have low self-esteem. Listen in: Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake…maybe I’m too tame. I’m not like anyone I know.” Oh, no, poor kitty! I thought Daniel might feel emboldened if Mister Rogers clued him into the fact that he issues from a long line of apex predators replete with awesome muscle mass, dagger-like claws and razor sharp teeth. But instead, someone named Lady Aberlin waltzes in and sings that she likes him just as he is and that he is her friend. Turns out that Mr. Fred Rogers wrote the lyrics and, in spite of what the puppet King Friday XIII thinks, he pretty much runs the kindly show.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood should focus on Daniel Tiger, in my opinion. Instead it focuses on Fred Rogers (or I thought it would) who is Mister Rogers on his show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The title ensures that we and everyone in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe knows who will be claiming the limelight.
Well, okay, I thought, fair enough. Because I had seen Morgan Neville’s splendid documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) in which Fred Rogers’ preternatural patience and goodliness is documented, I agreed that he deserves the limelight. But one does feel sort of inadequate by comparison. If only the filmmaker had managed some footage of Fred cursing after stubbing his toe or frowning when somebody flips him off in traffic. But no, he’s pretty perfect. But he’s likable anyway. So I was pleased to learn that Tom Hanks –another super nice guy– had signed on to play him in an adaptation based on a 1998 Esquire magazine article by Tom Junod, “Can You Say…Hero?”
Apparently the journalist had gone into the process figuring that Fred Rogers couldn’t be as mild and awed by life as Mister Rogers. So, first things first… Tom Hanks is wonderful as Mister Rogers. Wisely, he doesn’t do an impersonation, but captures Fred’s love of humanity and lack of judgment. He comes off as a compassionate pastor. And odd. But that’s okay, because just like Mister Rogers likes each child just as they are, we like him.
But the movie spends sooo much time on the journalist character, “Lloyd Vogel.” Yes, the movie has a nice message about how Fred helps Lloyd to see himself as a good man and act accordingly, but why couldn’t we see more of Tom Hanks being Fred Rogers?
The Lloyd character is capably handled by British actor Matthew Rhys, who won an Emmy for “The Americans.” Lloyd is a cynical man and hard-boiled investigative reporter who doesn’t appreciate it when his editor assigns him a piece on heroes, and tells him to hurry up and interview Fred Rogers.
When Lloyd meets up with Fred on the set of his show in Pittsburgh, Lloyd seems pretty disgusted. He stares gimlet-eyed at Fred as he interacts with a little boy who has been gifted a visit with him. Fred is gentle and projects a sincere interest in the boy. But you can see that Lloyd isn’t buying it.
Once Lloyd is introduced to Fred, the man shows Lloyd nothing but kindness. Lloyd finds this suspicious and interrogates Mister Rogers who explains that his mission is to help children understand and manage their feelings. Wow, Lloyd, the guy is truly a monster.
Lloyd and Fred talk during show breaks, over lunch and at Fred’s home. One time, they are taking the subway together and some kids, upon recognizing Mister Rogers, spontaneously sing the theme song to his show. Lloyd gapes at the kids like he might be sick soon. Another time, Fred is showing Lloyd his puppets and playfully has Daniel Tiger (my fave!) talk with Lloyd. Even though it is apparent how sensitive and shy Daniel is, Lloyd rudely refuses to talk with our Stry Ped friend. What a misanthropic, misfelinic bastard! Mister Rogers tries to smooth things over for the sake of Daniel’s feelings while Lloyd looks to be summoning all of his will to keep from punching saintly Fred in the face.
And did I mention that earlier that week Lloyd had punched his own dad? He did; at his sister’s wedding. The groom rushes over to break up the fight while Lloyd’s wife, newborn in her arms, looks on in horror. Yes, someone actually married Lloyd. Fortunately, Lloyd is not mean to his wife or their baby. When his wife tells him that he has to make things right with his family, he is mystified. Meanwhile, Lloyd pursues Fred like he is a war criminal.
Lloyd also finds time to reject his ill father’s attempts at reconciliation and make his wife feel uncomfortable when she acts charitable to others. Lloyd flies back and forth from his New York City home to Fred’s Pittsburgh base determined to crack the nice old man. Frustratingly for Lloyd, Fred exhibits decency to all and devotion to fostering children’s mental health.
Maybe Lloyd will be able to expose Fred’s ruthlessness with his own words… Quotes like, “Real strength has to do with helping others” or “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.” Yes, Lloyd, you should be able to haul Mister Rogers to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice with these incendiary diatribes alone.
Along the way, his long-suffering wife Andrea (played sympathetically by Susan Kelechi Watson) tries to discourage his cynicism. When her muckraking husband tells her that he will be interviewing Mister Rogers, she implores, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.” As for the dad he punches, he’s not much more than a standard ne’er do well lothario. But Oscar winning actor Chris Cooper delivers some pathos in the latter part of the film.
In all fairness, Lloyd’s jadedness doesn’t weigh the movie down too much because it’s buoyed by the Fred Rogers/Tom Hanks scenes. At first, Tom Hanks’ performance with the dreamy slow speaking (could it be weed-induced?) and utter sincerity will have you grinning, but he wins us over. Fred’s the real deal… and you can bet on the childrens’ show magnate to be crafty enough to win this game. Prepare to be checkmated by a Master, Lloyd.
So, friends, let’s circle back to check on Daniel Tiger. Has he recovered from Lloyd’s earlier rudeness? Certainly. Not only that, but Daniel went on to have a son, also named Daniel who — at four years old– has his own animated PBS show, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” So even though Fred Rogers’ has passed on, his mission of teaching and caring for children lives on.
P.S. During production of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Tom Junod read Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script that was inspired by his initial Esquire magazine piece. He felt that the fictions about him and his life story were significant enough that he asked the screenwriters to replace his name and family member names. Hence real life journalist Tom Junod becomes fictional journalist and professional sourpuss Lloyd Vogel. You can read more about Tom & Fred in Junod’s 2019 piece in The Atlantic, “My Friend Mister Rogers.”