Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Michah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni
Released: January 23, 2020
Grade: B+

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood will be a slightly tougher sell in Australia compared to the United States as many here will not be familiar with its real life hero, Fred Rogers.  For those who’ve never heard the name, Rogers hosted a popular live-action children’s show that first aired in 1968 and continued through to his retirement in 2001.  In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush for “his service to the nation and dedication to the education of children.”  He was just the 5th television personality in history to achieve the honour.

Tom Hanks has mastered many acting assignments but even he was “terrified” by this role given Fred Rogers had such a public profile.  How do you recreate someone who was so loved and adored without it coming across as gimmicky imitation?  The answer to that question was time and research.  Hanks admitted to watching “about 8 million hours” of Mister Rogers programs and he travelled to Pittsburgh to spend time with Fred’s wife, Joanne (noting that Fred passed away in 2003).  She was even kind enough to let Hanks wear some of her husband’s old ties in the movie.

Kudos to director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) in casting Hanks because his stellar performance serves as the film’s emotional core.  His character is described as a “living saint” and “the nicest person I’ve ever met” and while that may sound over-exaggerated, it’s actually a fair description.  Rogers offers several “pearls of wisdom” throughout the film and it’s hard not feel better about life while watching his calm demeanour and listening to his comforting voice.  It’s earned Hanks his first Academy Award nomination in 19 years.

With so many possible angles and so much material to draw from, the two-person writing team made the decision to focus on a very small fragment of Rogers’ life.  It’s centred on a cynical journalist (Rhys) from Esquire magazine who finds his view of the world transformed after reluctantly agreeing to interview the famed entertainer.  It’s loosely based on an encounter between Rogers and award-winning writer Tom Junod that took place in 1998 (although his character has been quasi-fictionalised for the film).

A small problem with this approach is that Rogers, as the more interesting of the duo, is given less screen time than the not-so-intriguing journalist.  I’d also argue that the journalist’s tale is too obvious and predictable.  You always know where it’s heading.  The film offers a fleeting look behind Rogers’ façade (if he ever had one) with references to his kids and his “not so perfect” qualities but, unlike the journalist, the film chooses not to push as deeply into that space.  It’s a curious choice.

Criticisms aside, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood captures the essence of Fred Rogers and is likely to put a smile on the toughest of faces.  He was one of a kind.