Beneath his guileless goodness, a deceptively strong current of spiritual bravery ran through Fred Rogers. It couldn’t have been easy to be the lighthouse, a reliably calming influence in a world made stormy with cynicism. Any man who could be that would naturally invite parody and derision, but Rogers had no apprehension of such negativity. While other children’s programming thrived on banality, Mr. Rogers leveraged the trust he earned from kids to tackle serious subjects with surprising candor. This quiet strength, combined with his undiluted purity, helped make the man an American institution.
Despite its title, this Beautiful Day actually centers on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a haggard, despondent journalist for Esquire. Vogel has earned a reputation as a prickly interviewer, so his editor (Christine Lahti) demotes him to a puff piece on Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Emotionally jaundiced, Vogel fumes at having to cover the host of a “hokey kids show.” He hopes to figure out whether or not the gentility we see from Rogers is a facade, hiding something deeper and darker from public view.
Turns out, Mr. Rogers is exactly the man we see on TV. He takes a genuine fascination in Lloyd’s fractured psyche, and redirects the focus of their interview to what’s troubling the reporter. It seems that Lloyd endures a combustible relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), a surly drunk who’s only recently staggered back into the picture. Now Lloyd must reconcile his immense hostility against an obligation to forgive the old man and let him meet his new grandson.
Part of the genius of Mr. Rogers was how his show never flinched from such big emotional issues. Death, disease, and divorce impact children as much as adults, and Rogers notes that feelings of grief and anger are perfectly natural. The key, he teaches, is channeling those emotions into something positive. Rogers recounts the cruelty of his own childhood bullies, who gave him a lifelong temper. Throughout the movie, we see him trying to purge that negative energy by swimming laps or pounding out notes on a piano, rather than let all that bottled fury poison his soul.
I could tell you that Hanks delivers an astounding performance as Fred Rogers, but does that even have to be said? As the most beloved American actor this side of Jimmy Stewart, Hanks slips right into that iconic red cardigan and makes you believe from the get-go. Rhys sensitively conveys a man trying to glue his broken humanity back together. And Cooper has forged a career from playing decent dudes destroyed by bad decisions, and he turns in more fine work as a bad dad who wants to be a better grandpa.
For some reason, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reminded me of the scientific tenet that the simplest explanations tend to be the right ones. So many lessons from Fred Rogers rang with basic truth: Be patient, be kind, and be thankful for who you are and what you have. Those words may sound like precious kiddie tripe, but I can think of a lot of adults who would do well to hear them. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood works not only because it embodies the gentle humor and genuine warmth of its subject, but the story also proves a lasting point: No matter where we may be in life, there’s always a place for the wisdom of Mr. Rogers.
108 min. PG.