A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2020)
In a world where humans are destroying the planet, fighting wars, and electing morally-corrupt political leaders, it is no coincidence that along comes a movie like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the legendary Mister Rogers, you might be surprised at how strongly the film speaks to what being human really means.
This true story opens with Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) live recording one of hundreds of episodes made during his 33 years as host of the most popular children’s program in American television history. It’s a slow, deceptively saccharine start to what is two films in one. The first is a bio-pic of the remarkable Mister Rogers; the second, a coming of age tale centred on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who represents real-life journalist Tom Junod.
The award-winning Vogel has a reputation for writing character assassination articles. It’s his way of channelling years of pent-up rage over his mother’s early death and his father’s callous abandonment during her illness. When assigned to write a short piece about Mister Rogers, his sole purpose is to find dirt on the person behind the mask. With disarming intuition, Rogers senses a deeply troubled soul and cannot help himself from reaching out. While Vogel stalks for scandal, Rogers offers only kindness and understanding.
The film’s forward momentum comprises psychological turning points rather than narrative action. Its dialogue-rich script draws out viewer empathy and rewards with touching moments centred on Vogel’s self-discovery, forgiveness, and acceptance. The avuncular Rogers’ unique emotional intelligence shows us, the viewer, what unconditional kindness can achieve.
In cinematic terms, the film’s central relationship represents the contrast between benign humanity and toxic masculinity. It takes top-shelf talent like Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys to portray the emotional range of this story with authenticity and only a few light dollops of melodrama. Hanks is the heart of the film. His wide-eyed slow drawl, compassion, and common sense at first seem surreal, but it does not take long before his warmth overwhelms any suspicion of insincerity. Rhys excels in his portrait of unresolved grief and anger and is cast to perfection opposite Hanks.
The real journalist Tom Junod went on to write an award winning front-page extended essay for Esquire, published in November 1998. It is a rewarding read, rich with insight into both Rogers and Junod. While entertaining in its own right, it is hard to watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood without reflecting on the erosion of human values in today’s world. That’s the whole point of the film.
Director: Marielle Heller
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys