Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper
Director: Marielle Heller
Screenplay: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Scott, it’s time to review of a movie about the nicest man on television played by the nicest guy in Hollywood.
Greg, you’re mistaken, I’m not in this film. But Mr. Rogers is a close second so let’s recap this latest film about him.
We’re introduced to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is a hard-nosed reporter coming to work for Esquire magazine. He’s given the job of writing a 400-word “puff piece” on Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) – a children’s TV show host known for his kindness towards children. Vogel balks at the opportunity saying he’s covered world leaders and criminals. But his boss insists. Now Vogel is on the warpath to find out what dark secrets “the nicest guy on television” may be hiding.
Vogel arrives in Pittsburgh where Rogers’ legendary show is filmed. He’s struck by Rogers’ extreme friendliness and he witnesses Rogers’ incredible rapport with children. During their conversations, Rogers picks up on Vogel’s acrimonious relationship with his father. It seems that Vogel and his father got into a fist-fight at Vogel’s sister’s wedding, and there are wounds from childhood involving Vogel’s dad abandoning the family. Rogers has clearly touched a nerve and Vogel’s journey of healing has begun.
Scott, we saw a documentary on Fred Rogers (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) last year. If there were any skeletons in Rogers’ closet, we would know it. Vogel’s character is based on an article written in 1998 by Tom Jonud. And Vogel learns that what you see on television is what you get in person with Fred Rogers. Not only is Rogers putting on a show that helps children find their inner self, but helps both children and adults cope with difficult challenges in life like change, divorce, death, and strangers.
Vogel is the protagonist of this story. We watch him approach Rogers with the aim of finding something wrong with him. And ultimately it is Vogel who finds that the pain within himself is needing of healing — and Rogers shows him the way. In this sense, while Rogers acts are heroic, he is, in fact, a mentor. We’ve talked about this archetype before, Scott: the Hero-Mentor who himself does not undergo change but instead is the change-agent in others — even the world.
There are a number of thought-provoking moments (and even moments where I felt a little choked up) in this film. My favorite is when Vogel turns to Mrs Rogers and asks, “Isn’t it difficult to be married to a living saint?” She turns to Vogel and says: “We don’t approve of that phrase. It makes it sound like what Fred is doing is unattainable.” This is the most important moment in the film for me. It is a clear statement of the banality of heroism. That being good, and honest to each other is a natural thing that each of us is born with.
The film is a bit surrealistic. The director flits back and forth between 4:3 aspect ratio (a screen format that resembles the squarish 1980s TV screens) and 16:9 aspect ratio (the format motion pictures use). Whenever we’re in the world of Mr. Rogers, we are in TV mode. And when we’re in the “real world” we’re in movie screen mode. It’s very effective at first and then becomes surrealistic when Vogel starts being filmed in TV mode. This is a very creative artistic choice that director Mariell Heller applies deftly. By blurring the distinction between television and reality, she also blurs the distinction between Mr. Rogers and Fred Rogers. As Vogel discovers, there is no difference. Mr. Rogers is not a character – Fred Rogers is Mr. Rogers.
Great analysis, Greg. I hadn’t noticed the shifts in screen size, and you’re right that it’s a clever and meaningful directorial touch.
We’ve seen many movies where the hero is actually a mentor or “change agent” whose job is to transform others. The heroes in these movies are typically Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Jr. Fred Rogers now joins this elite company in the movies. We can assume that these heroes have already undergone their own personal transformation, and the purpose of the movie is to illustrate how the transformed hero now transforms others. Beautiful Day does a phenomenal job of depicting how Mr. Rogers reached people and helped them deal effectively with their emotions. Most importantly, he made people feel valuable just the way they were.
Tom Hanks deserves great kudos for his nuanced performance here. I suspect he slipped effortlessly into this role because he shares many of the same humanitarian instincts as Fred Rogers. There are scenes in this movie that emphasize the fact that Rogers was far from perfect. He experienced the same family challenges and emotional setbacks as most humans. But while Rogers, too, played all the low notes on the piano and was humbled by life, he found a way to use television as a medium for healing and nurturing children.
The story here is genius in its simplicity. A broken man, a reporter for Esquire named Vogel, is assigned the task of writing a short article about Rogers. Because he has yet to transform his pain, Vogel transmits it. He has a history of writing cruel, scathing articles about others. Vogel is convinced that Rogers is a fraud and cynically probes for hypocrisy or deception in Rogers – but there is none. Unexpectedly, Vogel finds great therapeutic value in conversing with Rogers and discovers healthy ways of dealing with his anger towards his father. We realize that Vogel cannot become a good father himself until he heals his own father wounds. This is a beautiful moment of heroic transformation in the film.
And that brings us to my final point: In Joseph Campbell’s analysis of hero mythology throughout the world and throughout human history, the idea of “atonement with the father” emerged as a central defining theme. Not all hero’s journeys involve the hero reconciling with their father, but it sure seems a lot of them feature this idea, from Luke Skywalker in Star Wars to this Mr. Rogers movie. Until we reconcile with our personal authority figures, we are doomed to remain unhealed, untransformed, and uninteresting characters in life.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautiful film, indeed. Rogers is well-known for his generosity and kindness and is credited with saving PBS. The depiction in this film is very much “show, don’t tell.” We are shown the power and magic in Rogers’ message by focusing on one person and how Rogers changed his life. The use of TV and movie-screen dimensions was delightful and skillfully applied. I an happy to award 5 out of 5 Reels for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
While Rogers is the hero of the story, it’s really a story of Vogel’s transformation and redemption. He’s on the road to failing in life just as his father did. Having met Rogers, he heals himself, he reunites with his estranged father, and repairs his own marriage. This is a perfect hero-mentor story and I give it 5 out of 5 Heroes.
The messages are as simple as Mr. Rogers always made it: I like you just the way you are. There are ways to deal with negative emotions. And it’s ok to feel sad and angry – it’s how we deal with these feelings that matters. These were valid in the 1960s when Fred Rogers started in television, and they are even more valuable today. I give Fred Rogers’ 5 out of 5 Message points and nominate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for our Hall of Fame.
Beautiful Day is one of the best films of 2019 and deserves Oscar buzz for Best Picture and Best Actor. It seems like Tom Hanks has been snubbed by the Academy in recent years, and I’m hoping he gets his due with this performance. I’m with you, Greg, about this movie engendering some tear-inducing emotionally moving moments. If you’re a male who has had some father issues, be sure to bring the Kleenex. I also give Beautiful Day 5 Reels out of 5.
Vogel’s hero’s journey hits all the major stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth. The Esquire assignment to write an article about Mr. Rogers sends Vogel on the journey. Vogel is challenged by his new role as a father, by his recent spat with his dad, and by his own personal demons that tell him, incorrectly, that Rogers is a fraud. It’s simply beautiful watching Rogers reach Vogel at a deep, deep level just through simple, compassionate conversation. Vogel is forever transformed and deserves 5 Hero points out of 5.
And what a message — Unconditional love, compassion, empathy, and friendship are what we all need to become our best selves. Clearly, we must award 5 Message points out of 5 here. Greg, I’m with you that Beautiful Day deserves a place in our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.