It’s a curious thing to see the world unfold around you. No matter how unimportant or irrelevant something might be to the grand scheme of life, it’s amazing how we all can compartmentalize what we see and hear, and contextualize it within our own life experience, and with our own biases. I say this because as I watched Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood this week, I couldn’t help but remind myself of an injustice that took place with the last film about him.
Part of the reason I was so upset that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year was because I knew – and I believe the Documentary Branch of the Academy knew as well – that if it was nominated, it would have won. The movie was an unabashed crowd-pleaser, and Fred Rogers is so beloved even today that the Academy writ large would have voted for him without question. I suspect that for whatever reason, the idea of honoring a classical force for good must have seemed out of place for the Doc Branch when there are so many problems in the world worth exposing. It also doesn’t help from a documentary storytelling standpoint, I guess, when the subject really is as good as advertised, without subtlety, and without reservation. For some, I suppose it’s hard to see a hero without wondering if he isn’t hiding something more sinister, especially in this day and age. Even the eventual Oscar winner, Free Solo, had a protagonist that one could argue is patently insane and unappreciative of the woman who loves him.
Now, in the long run, none of this really matters. It’s just another example of a popular documentary being ignored by the Academy. It happens all the time. But in watching this latest, fictional portrayal of Mr. Rogers, I was forced to keep reminding myself of the snubbing, and how angry it made me in the moment. I also kept reminding myself that Fred Rogers himself would have been the first to ask me to let go of my anger, and that’s what’s really important.
Based on a 1998 article written in Esquire magazine called “Can You Say… Hero?” the new film, directed by Can You Ever Forgive Me?‘s Marielle Heller, takes an inspired choice right off the bat by presenting itself as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, expanded to feature length. The film opens as any other of Rogers’ shows would, with our favorite neighbor entering his house, changing into his iconic cardigan sweater, and inviting us into his living room via song. While Tom Hanks will always look like Tom Hanks (apart from a couple side glances and eye twinkles that really do evoke his late avatar), but he captures the mannerisms of Mr. Rogers perfectly. Using the very elements that made the show special (sets, props, miniatures to depict travel, etc.), Rogers introduces us to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a writer who is very sad and angry, and takes us on the journey to help Lloyd out.
Now, how much of Lloyd is actually based on the article’s writer, Tom Junod, is never really made clear. Junod himself notes that his encounters with Rogers dramatically changed his life and outlook on it, and that certainly comes through in the article (which was apparently supposed to only be a 400-word puff piece blurb before morphing into a cover story), but within the context of the film, a lot is left open to interpretation. Nowhere in the article is Junod’s personal life really brought up, apart from anecdotes about his own childhood stuffed animal, “Old Rabbit,” which becomes a thematic talking point, but the core of the movie’s story is really about the writer’s adult life.
Lloyd is a successful writer, as was Junod before getting the Rogers assignment. He’s happily married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and has a newborn son. However, he is estranged from his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who abandoned them and his sister (Tammy Blanchard) as children while their mother (Jessica Hecht) was dying. At the reception for his sister’s wedding, Lloyd gets into a fistfight with Jerry.
The world has become a cynical place over the last 20 years (and really, it had been a slow burn for decades before that as well), and Lloyd reflects that. With a reputation as a confrontational exposé journalist, it’s in Lloyd’s nature to question Rogers’ motivations, to attempt to find the real man behind the TV character, because it’s just not possible for them to be the same person. There has to be something else there, some angle, some game, some untoward reason why Fred Rogers does what he does. What’s he hiding behind that soft smile and soothing voice? What skeletons reside in that closet with the sweaters? Nothing is pure, nothing is good, so there has to be something.
And that’s the beauty of this movie, and in Hanks’ portrayal. There wasn’t a façade. The Fred Rogers on our televisions was the real Fred Rogers, through and through. He was a being of pure empathy, truly engaged with people, and deeply caring about everyone he met, and no matter what their sin, he saw the godliness in all of them. These are the stories reflected in Junod’s article, a series of “Once upon a time”s that turn into vignettes used in the film. A hyperactive kid swinging a plastic sword is reached when Mr. Rogers tells him that he’s strong on the inside as well as the outside. A subway train full of schoolchildren recognize him and sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, leading the entire car to join in. An angry man learns to let go just a little bit as Rogers asks him to spend a brief moment of silence reflecting on those “who loved him into being.”
The actual family drama between Lloyd and Jerry is pretty standard, but what amazes me is how raw the emotions are, and how well the heaviness of the issues is portrayed while still keeping this film within the confines of a PG rating. That was one of the core values of Mr. Rogers, both in and out of the show. Children had to learn how to deal with the feelings they were experiencing, and sometimes hurt takes a long time to heal. But when we show it, we have to show it in a way that can make sense to them. Children know about illness, about death, and while it would likely terrify them, knowing that “it isn’t always peaceful,” and that someone can “die screaming” is essential to them being able to cope. Mr. Rogers knew that wholeheartedly, and he was the voice that would help them begin to process, and that’s why he’s so sorely missed these days. Being able to temper all that into a PG-rated film that kids can watch and discuss with their parents later would have been right up Rogers’ alley.
I’ll share my own little anecdote to wrap this up, because I think it’s germane. When I went to see the movie yesterday with my girlfriend, we got to our seats, then I went to the concession stand to just get some water and an ice cream bar for her. The line was huge, at least 30 people, perhaps closer to 50. In spite of the facts that a) there were half a dozen registers, b) schools are off this week, so there were tons of kids with their parents to see a matinee of Frozen II, and c) this was a major theatre chain, only one person was running one register for all these people. Occasionally, one other guy would come out from the back to take one customer at a different register before walking away, but that was it. One person to serve dozens. I spent 20 minutes in line before giving up after my girlfriend texted me that the movie was starting. There were still five people in front of me when I left, because on top of everything else, this one worker had no particular motivation to do her job at anything beyond a snail’s pace.
I was furious. This is not how you run an operation. The theatre had to know schools would be out, so matinee shows would have more people than normal. They certainly should have properly staffed their concession stand. If nothing else, this is Los Angeles in 2019. Why wasn’t there a self-service kiosk for people like me, who just wanted an ice cream bar from the freezer drawers and bottled water from the drink cabinets on our side of the counter? I could have just scanned, swiped my credit card, and been done in mere moments. Instead, the cabinets were locked, and had I grabbed the ice cream before getting in line, it would have melted in my hand.
I was totally prepared to just wail on the management after the movie. The concessions are where these places make their money, and they just lost a good $15 bucks from me, and risk losing a lot more in future, as I’ll be hesitant to use that theatre again. No one should have to show up an hour before the movie to get snacks and drinks or risk missing what they paid for.
But then, I sat down and watched the movie, and I was at peace. Even with Tom Hanks as a facsimile of Fred Rogers, it was enough to calm my nerves, and release my anger. It was enough for me to realize that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter, like being cut off in traffic, or a superior documentary getting snubbed by the Oscars. It feels good to let go of anger. It feels good to have an empathetic voice assure you that it’s okay. It feels good to see a shy little tiger ask to be your friend and help you share your feelings to help you process frustration.
It feels good to know Mr. Rogers was a part of this world. If you have the chance, share him with your family this holiday weekend.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your definition of a hero? Do you ever wonder if King Friday XIII’s mom ever terrorized sexually promiscuous camp counselors? Let me know!