Written by Mubashir Oliyantakath
It is far easier to accept that someone is inherently evil than the opposite. It is the human condition. And yes, it is a condition. Maybe it is the primal part of our brain—which has helped humanity survive for so long in such a treacherous world—that always makes us doubt goodness. This thought stayed with me as I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Marielle Heller.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood strays from the regular formula of a biopic—in a refreshing manner, of course—and presents itself as a mirror turned towards the audience. The film follows a jaded investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel (played expertly by the talented Mathew Rhys), tasked with writing a piece about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), a beloved TV personality. Vogel could be any one of us. The wounds from his past and his troubled relationship with his father are compounded by his newfound fatherhood. He is angry at his inability to prevent himself from becoming his father, who he despises for past mistakes. He is vulnerable, and he is a skeptic. This is not without reason. He personally has torn down the veneers of a number of famous people and exposed them for who they really are. He doesn’t expect Mister Rogers to be any different. But Fred Rogers becomes his black swan—the one possibility he never knew existed. Ten minutes short of a two-hour-long therapy session at the price of a movie ticket (or free if you scored a preview pass), the movie is more about how Mister Rogers touched the lives of his audience than it is about Fred Rogers himself. This movie gave me a chance to feel that touch firsthand when the phenomenal Tom Hanks gazed directly at me for almost half a minute and I felt that he saw me and loved me for who I am—a personal mantra Mister Rogers stood by, a message he tried his very best to convey to each and every one of his audience, children and adults alike. The reassurance and kindness we all need.
Lloyd Vogel is just a stand-in for us. The movie doesn’t deny it. In fact, it makes it all the more evident by the subtle fourth wall break I mentioned previously. It is also commendable how graciously the movie equips us emotionally by exposing us to how Vogel comes to grips with his own situation before gently placing us in Vogel’s shoes, albeit briefly. This almost interactive juncture makes the movie all the more watchable, providing the audience with a chance to share a tender moment with Mister Rogers (which felt very much like a cool salve on a wound). The silence was deafening, and the reaction of my fellow moviegoers—or lack thereof—made it clear that they too were feeling what I felt.
I grew up far away from ‘Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’, yet from the very first shot, the movie told me everything I needed to know about the impressive body of work left behind by Fred Rogers and his beloved television personality, Mister Rogers, who is—as the movie later depicts—just an unadulterated and indifferentiable replica of the person Fred Rogers really was. The inclusion of shots of toy cityscapes instead of the real locations and the use of an educational video about ‘magazine printing’ to establish Vogel’s character might look gimmicky at first sight, but such seemingly ‘gimmicky’ moments are utilised to help audience members who might not be familiar with Mister Rogers (and maybe induce a sense of nostalgia for those who are). I fall into the former category and am extremely thankful for that.
It would be redundant to talk about Tom Hanks’s performance at this point in time. A beloved actor, playing another beloved personality. It is just seamless and obvious. Chris Cooper gives a stellar performance as Vogel’s father embodying flamboyance and vulnerability at the same time. Mathew Rhys holds his place gracefully, even under the shadow of the two amazing thespians.
What made Fred Rogers who he was? You won’t find the answer to that question in this movie. Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood inspires us to believe that there is inherent goodness in people and there is beauty in the struggle to be kind and accepting, even when stymied by the human condition.