A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t a movie about Mr. Rogers. It’s a movie about us.
Technically, it’s about Tom Junod, a journalist who profiled Fred Rogers for Esquire in 1998. The resulting article, “Can You Say...Hero?” chronicles the litany of good deeds Junod witnesses Rogers perform throughout the day, often simple acts with seismic effects on the people he encounters. It ends with Rogers asking Junod to pray with him, a moment that changed his life completely: who he was as a journalist, as a father, and as a man.
Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, the fictional stand-in for Junod, a writer already fragile from his own cynicism who is nearly broken by his deadbeat father’s attempts to reconnect with him shortly after the birth of his son. Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers, the minister who became a children’s TV host then beacon of hope for a struggling society, and also the person who saves Lloyd.
It’s a movie about how much Lloyd (and Junod) needed Mr. Rogers at that time in his life. It’s about how much we need Mr. Rogers right now. It’s about how much we need Tom Hanks right now. It’s about how much we need a movie in which Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers right now.
Directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and out Friday, it’s a sensitive portrait of an unlikely friendship. Lloyd doesn’t get the whole Mr. Rogers schtick. But spending time with him, being a direct, in-person benefactor of the icon’s surprisingly workmanlike investment in other people’s well-being, he’s convinced. They forge a bond that is nothing short of profound.
Along the way the film illuminates some truths that are just generally good life advice. Being unhappy doesn’t make you more interesting. Being unforgiving doesn’t mean you’re strong. It may be easier to motivate people by appealing to their fears rather than their love, but it isn’t as productive. Feelings are manageable.
By virtue of the film’s existence in this form—about Fred Rogers, at least in part, and starring Tom Hanks—it is inherently, too, a film about niceness and what that means to us today, if it means anything at all.
Of course, Tom Hanks isn’t only nice. He’s a human, and humans aren’t just one thing, especially if the one thing is nice. But it’s nice to think of him that way, even if we know we’re being silly. Mr. Rogers wasn’t only nice. But it was nice to think of him that way, too. It’s still nice to think of him that way. It’s not silly. It’s necessary. What would we do if we found out that Mr. Rogers wasn’t nice? Or, maybe worse, Tom Hanks?
Part of the brilliance of Junod’s Esquire article is how it made the point that yes, Mr. Rogers is a hero, but a hero is also just a man. In the film, when Lloyd’s wife learns of his assignment, knowing his penchant for taking the piss out of the people he profiles, she pleads, “Oh lord, Lloyd. Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
Rogers was so sincere, without a shred of irony, that people would wonder whether a person that sincere could possibly exist today. But Hanks, to most, is actually that person, which is what makes this such great casting. A certain skepticism, the fear that Lloyd’s wife voices, accompanies that. Journalists have spent Hanks’ entire career spelunking for juicy gossip, desperate for a “gotcha” that would expose some grave evil or scandalous vice that’s been lurking beneath Hollywood’s Nicest Guy all along, as if it would somehow be more comforting to know he was a misogynist or a lousy drunk or something.
They’ve all come up short, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner discovers in her recent New York Times magazine profile of Hanks, which cannily checks the same boxes Junod’s profile of Rogers did. He really is that friendly, civil, generous, and kind. In fact, a publicist at one point even relays concern that yet another story about how nice Tom Hanks is could be bad press, that something so boring and expected would hurt the film, or diminish the accomplishment of the excellent acting and transformation he pulls off.
But the profile has the same effect of “Can You Say...Hero?” Even in confirming that Hanks could very well be a living saint, it makes the best-yet case that he is tangibly, relatably real. It’s we who are so unfamiliar with basic decency today that we refuse to believe that a person like Hanks who casually exhibits it could possibly be a normal human being.
Junod, or Lloyd in the film, is disoriented to the point of suspicion when he encounters Fred Rogers. The world with Mr. Rogers seems off its axis. In Lloyd’s world, there is chaos and pain and cynicism and anger and hate. Worse, there are no tools to process those things. This world where Mr. Rogers is as good as he’s supposed to be? Where he has the tools to dig through the badness and come out on the other side? More, he’s willing to share them with you—insists on it, even? That shouldn’t exist.
But Mr. Rogers exists in our world, and in Lloyd’s world, too, which is its own disorienting fact. It’s why, when he was alive, as Junod recounts in his article, people would combust with astonishment. “Holy shit! It’s Mister Fucking Rogers!”
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred and Lloyd ride the subway. After staring and smiling at him, the straphangers on the train start singing the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song. It’s a moment so pure and so genuine that it should be terrible, an unbelievable dramatization meant to emotionally manipulate and oversimplify our relationship to this hero. But it’s not that. It’s perfect, one of the best movie scenes of the year. (It also actually happened.)
Even if briefly, we recognize that world. A world where strangers sing his show’s theme song to Mr. Rogers on the subway is not the world we think we live in now, where everything is so awful and so scary and nearly everyone seems so horrible. But it is our world, in spite of that. The world we live in now still does have niceness in it.
But that’s the Mr. Rogers ethos. He never pretended that the bad things in the world didn’t exist. His neighborhood wasn’t one of fantasy. The good and the bad exist together. What matters is how we deal with it. “There’s always something you can do with the mad that you feel,” he says. It takes Lloyd the entirety of the movie to realize that and figure out what to do with his own “mad.” As we look around at the encroaching nightmare that surrounds us, we wonder how long it will take us to figure it out now, too.
We’re so starved for niceness today that we’ve turned fleeting examples of good things into obsessions. It’s the year of Lizzo, of the Hot Priest, of Kelly Clarkson’s “kellyoke,” of the “sorry to this man” meme. We need reasons to be happy and we will milk those sources dry. Even the jaded among us are no longer finding fault in that.
It’s canny, then, that before A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood screened for critics and reporters in New York earlier this month, it was preceded by a message from Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife. She talks about how glad she is that the film is coming out now, as she can sense that we are hungry for kindness. She also jokes about how pleased Fred would have been to be played by Tom Hanks. In 2019, it’s a collision of niceness and kindness that would be parody were it not so needed, so exactly right, so true.
Recent years’ discussion of how necessary a person like Mr. Rogers is—and whether it’s even possible for there to be another person like him, considering the ways in which society has evolved and digressed—is, in a way, depressing.
There’s a dissonance between Rogers’ most famous line—“Won’t you be my neighbor?—and the times we live in, of extreme polarization, technology-induced isolation, a bankruptcy of empathy, and literal walls. His maxims like “I like you just the way you are” are just as radical as ever, when hatred is the societal mantra.
The posthumous resurrection of Mr. Rogers as some sort of savior is a reminder of how timeless hopelessness is. But there’s also something encouraging about that discussion. Maybe we can be fixed. It’s happened before.
Until he sings the phrase in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I’d never heard or read Hanks say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” But it seems a version of what he’s done in his career, and by living up to his mythical reputation. His characters invite us to empathize, to discover the strength in humanity and the surprising power of the ordinary, and to see ourselves in the struggles and triumphs of others. His public persona is a reminder that goodness is real.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers is in some ways, then, a public service. It’s not just because it’s refreshing for there to be so much niceness on screen. It’s a reminder of the ways in which we, whether we’ve realized it yet or not, are still capable of being a little like that, too.