There are few, if any, people in the world who can evoke the same emotions as Fred Rogers. Not happiness, sadness, empathy or tears, but calmness and contentness. The feeling that, for a few brief moments, when he talks directly to you through the television screen, everything will be okay. The idea of taking on a film about a man like that seems like a daunting, harrowing task. Maybe even impossible.
And yet, director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?") and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue (“Transparent,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”) and Noah Harpster (“Transparent,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”) have created a film that is difficult to describe. Does it capture the man as we remember him? Yes. Does it do so with reverence and with a few details that shed some light on who he was off camera? Yes. However, very smartly, they make sure that from the beginning it’s clear that this movie is not about Mister Rogers.
It’s about Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys (“The Americans,” “The Post”), an investigative reporter assigned to cover Rogers for an issue on heroes for Esquire. Rhys makes Vogel so effortlessly relatable. He straddles the line between showing his anger and deep-rooted fears of the world, without turning him into a sad sack or a ball of rage. His performance and the script make conscious efforts to make sure that the audience knows exactly what the characters are feeling at all times, even if it isn’t strictly “realistic.”
Feeling is more important than plot, and Heller knows this. She flips the film back and forth between shots of Rogers and his show, Vogel’s life, fantastical representations of his struggles and conversations between the two men. At times it feels almost ethereal, and the fantastical sequences are so abrupt and surprising that they become a kind of magic.
And then there’s Tom Hanks (“Toy Story,” “Philadelphia”). It’s genuinely surprising that Hanks has had a career as long and as successful as it has been, but his portrayal of Rogers might just be one of his finest. The kindness and empathy comes across in droves, but there is a clear effort to not boil him down into just a nice guy. There are conflicts and frustrations that Hanks communicates with mere vocal timing and facial tics that are the signs of phenomenal actors. He embodies the goodwill of Rogers in the absolute best ways and is the best part of an already tremendous film.
The supporting cast is great as well. Susan Kelechi Watson (“This is Us”) makes her film debut here as Andrea, Vogel’s wife, and melts with charm and grace. She’s such a wonderful sense of heart and warmth that it’s hard to believe this is her debut. Chris Cooper (“Capote,” “American Beauty”) also delivers a career best performance as Vogel’s father, and while his screen time may be limited, his impact is not.
There is simply no other way to describe this film other than magical. It reaches inside you and, using Rogers, pulls at a kind of longing most films don’t have a fraction of the guts to attempt. It’s so wonderfully pure in its motivations, just a film that wants to ask if you’re okay and why you aren’t.
It’s a wonderful experience, to just sit with Rogers and Vogel for 100 minutes and by showing the impact of Rogers on someone whom he touched very particularly, it does more to tell us about the man than a two-and-a-half-hour examination of his entire life ever could. The way it’s structured and the depths to which it takes what could have been a gimmick of presentation are extremely admirable and unique. The camera floats through sets large and small, using the work of Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (“Tiny Furniture,” “Manchester By the Sea”) to continue to elevate the film’s ethereal feeling. There might not be another biopic structured like it.
A calming film, one that just wants to sit with you and make you feel okay. For 100 minutes Heller, Hanks, the writers and everyone involved delivers audiences a person so wondrous and so painfully real that it makes us all feel like we might one day be okay. Tear inducing, sweet, childlike in its whimsy and offering enough so that everyone can take what they need from it, it truly is “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Would you be mine? 5/5