Regular blog contributor Helen Tope had the chance to watch A Beautiful day in the Neighborhood in our cinema before our temporary closure had to be enforced. Our cinema might be closed, but we’re keeping our blog alive with film reviews and cinema related articles!
Will you be my neighbour? This was the question put to American children, every day, for 30 years.
Television host Fred Rogers created a children’s show completely different to anything that had come before. Airing in 1968, the show took Rogers’ gentle moral guidance as its framework, adding an element of fun with songs, puppets and model trains.
Fred Rogers, or Mr Rogers as he was on screen, became must-watch television. While the editorial emphasis was on sedate programming, Rogers also used the show to discuss issues such as racism and disability in a way that children could understand. Fred Rogers died in 2003 leaving behind a legacy that is unsurpassed. His trademark red cardigan is on permanent display in the Smithsonian.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood sidesteps the traditional biopic. Rogers, a quiet man off-screen, would be the first to admit his personal life would not be enough for a 2-hour film. Instead, A Beautiful Day uses the 1998 Esquire profile printed on Rogers as its starting point. Investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys) is given the task of writing a small piece to accompany the magazine’s spread on heroes. The ultimate childhood hero, now viewed with a late-Nineties cynicism, is just a little bit naff. Vogel baulks at the assignment. His editor insists. He is getting a reputation for being difficult: it’s time to play nice.
The film makes several bold choices in how to tell its story – we are introduced to Lloyd by Mr Rogers himself. Taking the lead role, Tom Hanks seamlessly inhabits the persona of Mr Rogers, walking onto the television set, opening the door and greeting his television audience. Taking us through his daily ritual – taking off leather brogues, lacing up casual plimsolls and a zip-up cardigan, Mr Rogers is ready for work. These scenes will register more with an American audience, as they’re designed to, but even for someone not acquainted with the world of Mr Rogers, there’s still a great deal of charm here.
A Beautiful Day jumps between these television set-pieces and real-life scenes between Lloyd and his family. The lines become increasingly blurred as Lloyd imagines himself as part of the set. The surreal notes dovetail nicely with the realist scenes. As Lloyd seeks out interview time with Fred, it becomes clear that the film’s focus is on Vogel’s fractured personality.
Dour and jaded, Vogel’s mood is more than the hard-bitten journalist. With a toxic relationship with his father to unpack, what could be an exercise in schmaltz is transformed into a thoughtful study of the emotional damage done to children.
The tone is expertly managed by director Marielle Heller. Alongside her previous directing credit, Can You Forgive Me?, Heller chooses to observe her characters’ reactions and impulses without judgement. While the life of a literary forger is somewhat more racy than the Rogers’ early morning piano sessions, A Beautiful Day illustrates Heller’s ability to tell a story clearly, simply and without fuss. But rather than being impassive, Heller’s unobtrusive style gels beautifully with the children’s entertainer. In no way controversial, but far from bland, Mr Rogers is a challenging subject for any film-maker. We are used to edge and confrontation – Lloyd, not for lack of trying, finds no scandal, and this is the difficulty for the film. Where is the conflict?
We find it buried within Lloyd’s life. A new father, and happily married, the successful journalist seems to have it all. But as Mr Rogers introduces us to Lloyd, it’s clear there is a piece missing. What emerges is a traumatic story of Lloyd’s childhood. The early, painful death of his mother, and subsequent abandonment by his father, Jerry, leaves Lloyd cold and untrusting. While this makes him brilliant at investigative journalism, matters come to a head when Jerry is invited to a family wedding. Jerry (an excellent performance from Chris Cooper) tries to engage Lloyd in conversation, but it quickly escalates and they fight. Bruised and bloodied, Lloyd tries to pass off his injury as sports-related as he meets Mr Rogers for the first time. The TV host sees through the lie in an instant.
What begins as a 400-word profile develops into a cover story as Lloyd finds himself compelled to meet with Rogers, again and again. Their connection becomes more than business, as Rogers – the more seasoned interviewer- easily finds Lloyd’s pressure point. Asking him about his relationship with Jerry, Lloyd angrily retorts that he doesn’t want to talk about it. In a wonderfully funny scene, Fred introduces Lloyd to his puppets. Trying to get Lloyd to talk to Daniel Tiger about his damaged relationship, Vogel is not amused. Heller’s luck with casting doesn’t stop with Hanks – no-one does unimpressed quite as well as Rhys.
It is Fred’s persistence that gets Lloyd to open up about what he has experienced. Eating breakfast in a diner, Fred asks Lloyd to think about the people who have made him what he is – friends, relatives, the experiences that stick with you. As Lloyd, reluctantly at first, gives himself over to the moment, Hanks’ eye flickers and catches our own. He lingers – it is not a mistake. He holds our gaze for a full minute. The sound of traffic on the street, stops. By asking us this simple question, the moment becomes one of extraordinary power. It is Heller’s unconventional approach to myth-making that makes A Beautiful Day a film so worth your time.
The question posed throughout the film is whether Mr Rogers is a hero. Even when Lloyd’s story makes the Esquire cover, it is printed as a question, not a statement. We of course see a far more nuanced portrait of the man. Rogers admits to Lloyd a difficult relationship with his sons, now resolved. But Heller asks the even trickier question – why does Lloyd (and by implication, the audience as well) doubt goodness?
We are used to the clinical expose: a beloved childhood memory pulled apart. It is almost harder for us to believe that a good man can be just that. No bluff, no game, just truth. While Fred’s religious devotion may read a little old-fashioned to us, his insistence on kindness, purpose and thought could not be more timely. Mr Rogers’ philosophy of conscious living not only inspired generations of children, it is a message that resonates today. Unafraid to tackle the big subjects – grief, divorce, death – Mr Rogers wanted to ensure that young Americans were emotionally resilient. His programme ran from 1968 to 2001, taking in world events from the Vietnam War to 9/11. At a time of crisis, the calm, reassuring voice is one we all cling to. But more than that, Mr Rogers provided children with their own toolkit for handling the difficulties of life. Our gut reaction is to misinterpret gentleness for weakness, but Mr Rogers’ lessons – as a victim of childhood bullying, a war veteran – came from a position of strength, making them all the more compelling. As toxic masculinity takes the lead on the world stage, A Beautiful Day in the Neigborhood reminds us that another way is possible. While telling Lloyd’s story in a wonderfully creative way, Heller’s film goes deeper. A Beautiful Day is as powerful an argument for emotional literacy as you’re likely to see.