In the aftermath of every school shooting, some well-meaning sort cites Fred Rogers—that’s Mister to you—and encourages us to look for the helpers. It’s Rogers quoting advice from his mother: It’s glass-half-full, silver-lining stuff. Sure, it’s comforting to dwell, post-bloodbath, on the nobility of bullet-taking heroes, or ambulance drivers, or police officers charging into active shooter situations. But Mister Rogers was talking to children. In such moments, adults shouldn’t look for the helpers but the culpable.
In the world we’ve made, though, what adult could resist being infantilized? A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new film by Marielle Heller, capitalizes on this impulse, returning its adult viewers to a simpler (imagined) time, when the even-keeled man in the zippered cardigan spoke to us from our television screens and made us feel safe.
Beautiful Day is adapted from Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, and the script—by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue—uses Junod (here called Lloyd Vogel and played by Matthew Rhys) as protagonist. Vogel is a big-city journalist with a beautiful wife (Susan Kelechi Watson), a new baby, a dope apartment in what looks like SoHo (just where you’d expect a public interest lawyer and a magazine journalist to live), and some issues. Or one: his bad dad (Chris Cooper). Everyone in this movie is a type, and you know Vogel pater’s type once you see his tacky clothes: He’s the sort of man who loves his bourbon, and he abandoned Lloyd’s mom when she was on her deathbed.
Vogel is dispatched by his editor (Christine Lahti, who seems to be playing the cigar-chomping J. Jonah Jameson of the Spiderman universe) to profile Fred Rogers. Thank God! You’re not paying $17 for some generic Oedipal struggle; you want to see Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Hanks doesn’t look anything like Rogers (I’d have cast David Strathairn) so, costuming aside, he doesn’t aim to embody but interpret. His voice is soft and deliberate, and he tries to look beatific, which must be harder than it sounds because most of the time he ends up seeming mildly brain-damaged. You can’t shake the feeling that you’re just watching Tom Hanks, but he’s a lovable guy, playing a lovable guy, so you kind of let it go.
Beautiful Day is a lot like Nora Ephron’s 2009 film Julie & Julia, another hagiography of an adored PBS star, Julia Child. In both, an unpleasant person is writing about a universally adored person, and that work changes them. But in Ephron’s film, Julia, a historical figure, remains simply a blogger’s subject; Heller’s casts Rogers as therapist to the broken Vogel, intervening in his life, urging him to be a better man. It’s not that hard to believe that a guy like Fred Rogers would take a deep interest in every person he happened to meet. What is hard to believe is that anyone watching will care about some guy who writes for magazines and doesn’t like his dad.
Heller begins her film as Rogers opened his program: the lo-fi production values, the model streetscape, the tinkling celesta, and that familiar song. Hanks opens the door, goes to the closet, changes his shoes, singing all the while, then tells us he wants to talk about his friend Lloyd. I groaned. It’s heavy-handed, it’s silly, and no one watching wants to hear the story of his friend Lloyd.
Still, the opening sequence is effective, not merely because of nostalgia or the set designer’s fidelity to the source material; it’s playing on our understanding that Rogers was a special man, able to posit kindness as a radical position. I’d have loved to see a film that examined that—how the man found an unlikely outlet for his commitment to his Christian faith in children’s entertainment. In fact, that film already exists, the acclaimed 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Heller’s film doesn’t shy away from religion—impossible to, since that’s the heart of Rogers’s work—but it doesn’t grapple with it, either. There’s a scene in which Joanne, Rogers’s wife (Maryann Plunkett, very winning in her few minutes on screen) chastises Vogel for referring to her husband as a saint. If Fred Rogers truly didn’t like that, he’d hate this movie. Isn’t it hard being Mister Rogers? Vogel demands of his subject. Rogers demurs. It’s only in its final moments that Beautiful Day gives us a ham-fisted acknowledgment that, yes, it is.
This single moment aside, Rogers is a stock figure, meant to remind us of the human potential for goodness. He is lazily deployed as a device. The intent is to use the relationship between Rogers and the journalist to show us both men in full, but the film ends up showing us neither. Rhys is a charismatic actor, but he is given so little to work with. He punches his dad and yells at his wife, then he talks to Mister Rogers and the movie leaps over conflict to land on closure: He’s kind to his wife and sits at his dad’s bedside while he’s dying. He’s even nicer to his editor!
Of course, no ink-stained wretch could ever be as compelling as the placid man who changed the popular conception of childhood itself. The movie’s best moment shows us another faithful recreation: We’re in the Land of Make-Believe, and Lady Aberlin (Maddie Corman, in a wonderful performance) is chatting with Daniel, a tiger puppet voiced by Rogers. Vogel is watching from behind the camera and is able to see Rogers, contorted into the puppet theater, speaking in the tiger’s babyish tones. Vogel gets to witness what generations of children never did, the reality behind the make-believe. I assume this will be the few seconds broadcast before Hanks wins his third Oscar.
I’m not a monster, so I love Mister Rogers. Just thinking about the guy makes me feel a little teary. That’s the point: Thinking about Mister Rogers will make you cry, and watching even a simulacrum (which is all that Hanks, gifted as he is, can come up with) will move you. There’s a scene where some kids on the subway spot Rogers and break into his theme song. It’s in Junod’s profile, so presumably it passed muster with Esquire’s fact-checkers. I wept! I defy you not to. But we’re adults now. It’s time to leave the Land of Make-Believe behind.