If nothing is more difficult in the movies than convincingly portraying authentic goodness, then “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” can be counted near-perfect. It’s about a dirt-digging journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, excellent), who grudgingly accepts an assignment from his Esquire magazine editor to profile children’s TV icon Fred Rogers (a perfectly cast Tom Hanks) for a special issue on heroes. Caught up in Rogers’ tranquil presence, Vogel’s resistance breaks down. What began as a job becomes a kind of spiritual communion for both men.
This is not a biopic of Rogers, for which I was grateful. Morgan Neville’s terrific 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” already tilled that territory. “A Beautiful Day” is primarily about Vogel – a new dad with a fraught relationship with his own father (Chris Cooper in top form) – and yet in essence it’s about the beneficence bestowed by Rogers upon all in his orbit.
It was exceedingly smart of director Marielle Heller and her screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster to frame this story through the eyes of an inveterate cynic. (Hearing of his assignment, Vogel’s wife, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, only half-kiddingly tells him, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”) In effect, Vogel is acting as our surrogate, and, as his encounters with Rogers deepen, we, along with Vogel, experience the healing transformation.
The film’s inspiration is the 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” by Tom Junod, in which he writes about Rogers, “There was an energy to him … a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy, and though I tried to ask him questions about himself, he always turned the questions back on me.”
It is this “unashamed insistence on intimacy” that comes through so unmistakably in Hanks’ performance, which is no mere cardigan and soft sneakers impersonation. The touchstone to his characterization is Rogers’ intense desire to listen to others and not sound off himself. The way Hanks plays it, this never seems like an evasion but, rather, the height of selflessness. It’s his way of bringing out the best in people. (His performance is most eloquent in its silences.) It is also his way of bringing out the best in himself. To the adults in this film, Rogers is no simple caregiver or homespun father confessor. He asks others to pray for him as readily as he prays for them, and he means it.
Rogers disdains the public perception of himself as a “living saint,” and of course he is right to do so. The authenticity of his goodness derives from the fact that he is a man and not some sort of haloed icon. On his long-running TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he brought up such issues as divorce, racism, assassinations, and death because he wanted to comfort his young audience and let them know that they were not alone in their fears.
What gives Hanks’ performance its ballast – what elevates it far above the realm of the touchy-feely – is the suggestion that the comforts he dispenses are hard won because they have come through fire. Rogers doesn’t deny life’s desecrations. His conviction, as stated in the movie, that “each one of us is special” carries moral weight because, in spite of everything, he holds to the belief that people are inherently good.
It is not even necessary to wholeheartedly sign on to this belief to experience this movie’s glow. For the time that we are in the theater – and for some time after, too – the aura holds. At least it did for me. Who can fail to smile at the scene (based on fact) where Vogel and Rogers, in a subway car, are regaled by its passengers with the theme song from Rogers’ TV show? It’s irrelevant to complain, as some commentators have, that Vogel’s reconciliation with his father is predictable. Predictability is the point. This is a movie about the difficult passage from dark to light and the transcendence that takes you there.