When is a Tom Hanks film not really a Tom Hanks film? And when is a biopic not really a biopic? Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then we’ll begin.
Director Marielle Heller’s latest film – A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood – is unconventional in a number of ways. For one thing, the big name actor headlining all the posters and publicity material isn’t actually the main focus of the movie; for another, it’s a semi-biographical piece about two people, one of whom is only in it for about half the running time, and the other is a fictionalised version of the main inspiration for this feature.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is based upon the true story of a piece written for Esquire magazine in 1998 by the journalist Tom Junod. With a reputation for being a hard-hitting but rather cynical writer, the editors gave him the assignment of writing a profile piece about a TV icon, Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, host of long-running children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a part of American culture since the 1960s.
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The actual article – entitled “Can You Say… “Hero”?” – was highly acclaimed, and the notion of a seemingly hard nosed and sceptical journo meeting possibly the nicest man alive was used as the genesis for this drama. In putting together the script, a number of changes were made to the real-life events and some of the people involved, to the extent that Junod asked for his name to be changed; he’s also planning to write a book in order to tell people what really happened.
Renamed as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), the same basic course of events unfolds, with the journalist being ordered to write a story about Fred Rogers, for a special “Heroes” issue of Esquire; unlike Junod, however, Vogel is given the assignment by his editor as he’s known for being too tough on his subjects, and this was seen as an attempt to try and rehabilitate his reputation. After meeting with Rogers (Tom Hanks), the pair strike up an unlikely friendship, one which has a profound and lasting effect on Vogel’s life and family relationships.
For those unfamiliar with Rogers, you could do no worse than to track down the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which takes you through Rogers’ life, from a lonely and sickly child, to becoming an ordained minister, and finding his calling as host of an educational television show which was an integral part of American childhood for three decades. Rogers is something of an unknown outside the United States, although you’re perhaps aware of him via wider pop culture, through his being featured in spoofs on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, as well as internet memes.
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Either the documentary or Junod’s article will tell you more of Rogers’ background, should you wish to learn about him in further detail; you certainly won’t get any major insight into his character here, but it’s only right that you don’t – after all, this isn’t Rogers’ story, and he’s only an ancillary player (as evidenced by Hanks’ Oscar nomination being in the category of Actor In A Supporting Role). It’s not a Fred Rogers biopic, so there’s no need to give us any in-depth look at him, as that’s not what the movie is for.
UK audiences don’t need to be overly concerned about any lack of familiarity with Rogers and his work, as you’re told – and shown – everything you need to know about him in service of the story, so that you know why this ‘opposites attract’ pairing is significant, as you can totally appreciate the profound effect Rogers has on people. Hanks’ name will also help draw people to see the movie who might not have otherwise bothered with it, so his star power is definitely a major benefit here.
One unexpected but amusing bit of trivia is that, according to Ancestry.com, Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers are actually sixth cousins, as they share the same German immigrant 5x great-grandfather; it’s a lovely bit of synergy, then, to have one playing the other. Hanks manages to capture the spirit of Rogers perfectly, without trying to slavishly impersonate or copy him – there’s a deliberate gentleness and softness in his physicality, with every motion a deliberate act, not a single movement is wasted by Hanks. It’s a salient lesson in minimalism, and shows less really is more.
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It’s a lovely touch to have someone renowned as being one of the nicest people in Hollywood playing one of the nicest people full stop. However, Fred Rogers is merely a prism through whom we see Lloyd Vogel, who changes as a direct result of his letting Rogers into his life. Sure, some liberties have been taken with the real events, but it’s all done in the name of dramatic licence, and you come to expect that with Hollywood takes on true stories; in this case, these tweaks aren’t to the detriment of the narrative by any means.
Lloyd is estranged from his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), who re-enters his life after many years, at his sister’s wedding. As he’s recently become a first-time parent, Lloyd is keen not to make the same mistakes that his own dad made with him, as he doesn’t want to visit the sins of the father upon his own child. Rogers becomes a sort of surrogate father to Lloyd – as he also was, effectively, to many generations of children via his TV show – and wants to help Lloyd heal the rift with his actual dad, before it’s too late.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a truly heartfelt and touching drama, and is the sort of movie you want to watch over and over, as it invites you into Mister Rogers’ make-believe Neighborhood, and truly captivates you in its warmth, humour, decency and compassion. In a real world where such qualities seem in short supply, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood reminds us of the basic goodness of people, and how we can all strive to be better, not just for ourselves, but those around us.