As the U.S. wallows in a moral quagmire and an epidemic of incivility, it’s time to reassess an appreciation for Fred Rogers. A living icon of unambiguous goodness, this genial entertainer held a firm and steady hand on the rudder of a nation plagued by one emotional crisis after another from the turbulent late 1960s to his retirement from public television in 2001.
In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” director Marielle Heller transforms a foursquare biopic into a fantasia of childlike pleasures and adult pain. The movie presents Rogers as the embodiment of kindness, tolerance and self-esteem without turning preachy or mushy. Heller captures the essence of the beloved television personality: grounded and confident, yet always gentle and attainable.
The movie is based on journalist Tom Junod’s cover-story profile of Rogers for Esquire magazine titled “Can You Say...Hero?” But Heller cleverly shifts the plot’s emphasis from Rogers to Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel (the character based on Junod), an investigative reporter struggling with his new responsibilities as husband and father and confounded by his estrangement from his father.
This plot is introduced by a prologue filmed in the style of the children’s TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as Rogers talks softly to his young viewers about forgiveness. It’s an understated yet fantastical approach that sets up the establishing shots depicting miniature cities with toy cars and airplanes.
At first, the skeptical Vogel bristles at his assignment to profile Rogers, claiming he is too saintly to make an interesting subject. Hanks’ performance as Mister Rogers puts a comic spin on Vogel’s perception. Hanks skillfully integrates the myth of the public figure with a touch of mystery about his famed humility and his private eccentricities. Hanks steers clear of impersonation (and caricature), while Heller resists plunging into a nostalgic narrative. Instead, she uses Rogers as a sort of mirror through which reflect both his values and the effect they have on the people who come into contact with him.
“A Beautiful Day” is really the story of Vogel, who has to make his way, sometimes painfully, through emotional obstacles to focus on reconnecting with his father and growing closer to his patient wife and infant son. Rhys is very good in a performance of a man in the grip of moral rot eating away at him with rage and regret. With help from Rogers, Vogel gradually learns to shed his cynicism and patch up his life.
On the surface, the plot of “A Beautiful Day” is conventional, but Heller adds wonderful creative flourishes to the story that raises it above the level of a standard biopic to something both entertaining and challenging. The movie isn’t a cinematic marvel, but it’s hard to resist its heartwarming charms.