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If you only watch one movie about children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, I’d have to recommend last year’s stellar documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It includes the startling footage of Rogers testifying in favour of continued public television funding in a congressional committee headed by the cynical Senator John Pastore. Rogers reads him a poem, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” at the end of which a visibly moved Pastore declares: “Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”
And if you are of the reading persuasion, track down Tom Junod’s 1998 profile in Esquire, titled: “Can You Say … Hero?” And follow it up with his new piece, “Mr. Rogers’ Enduring Wisdom,” in The Atlantic. You can find them both online. Prepare to weep.
But features are the modern campfire, around which we spin tales of the heroic and the wise. And Tom Hanks is a cinematic S’more — comforting, nostalgic, warm and sweet. And so I won’t begrudge you the pleasures of watching one marvellous man portray another, as Hanks does when he dons the cardigan and shoes of the Presbyterian minister who created Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But know that his portrayal can only ever be a Platonic shadow of the real thing.
Junod appears in the film, renamed Lloyd Vogel and played by Matthew Rhys. In real life, Junod in 1998 had just penned a savage takedown of Kevin Spacey, outing him as gay. It had earned him fame and disapprobation in roughly equal measure, and the journalist was questioning his moral centre. This kind of existential quandary being hard to show onscreen, writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) amped up Junod/Vogel’s troubled relationship with his dad, played by a blustering Chris Cooper.
But fact and fictional journalist meet when Vogel gets the assignment to profile Rogers. “At least it’s someone good,” says his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson). He replies gruffly: “We’ll see.”
What follows is one weird, lovely clash in a year that has given us battles among superheroes, lions and assassins. Rogers meets Vogel and — talks to him. And listens to him. The relationship that develops is somewhere between friendship and therapy. When Vogel tells Rogers that his mother has died, the response is not the traditional, empty “I’m sorry,” but the assurance that she must have been proud of him.
There are facets of Rogers’ story that can’t translate to the screen. In the Esquire article, Junod describes being in a locker room as the 70-year-old gets ready for his daily swim, “as white as the Easter Bunny, rimed with frost wherever he has hair, gnawed pink in the spots where his dry skin has gone to flaking, slightly wattled at the neck, slightly stooped at the shoulder, slightly sunken in the chest, slightly curvy at the hips, slightly pigeoned at the toes, slightly aswing at the fine bobbing nest of himself.” Hanks doesn’t recreate this moment, and that’s probably for the best.
But there are also elements to the story that can only be experienced on the big screen. Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) creates one when she has Rogers ask for a full minute of silence, which duly plays out for 60 … interminable … wonderful … seconds. And in a bit of magic realism, Vogel imagines himself shrunk down smaller than child-sized, interacting with the puppets of Rogers’ TV show.
And the score, by Nate Heller (the director’s brother), plays with the simple themes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, crafting them into something larger so that it’s hard to know where the PBS show stops and the film takes over.
Hanks is perfect in the role, because of course he is. It rounds out his saintly triumvirate after playing lawyer and political negotiator James B. Donovan (Bridge of Spies) and pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Sully). But Rhys acquits himself in the more difficult role of the journalist being led from a place of pessimism to one of faith. “To die is to be human,” Rogers tells him. “Anything human is mentionable. Anything mentionable is manageable.”
That’s easy to say, harder to believe, and Rhys sells his grudging, gradual belief. It’s also supremely easy to watch, easier still to enjoy.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens Nov. 22 across Canada, with some screenings on Nov. 21.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019