A Beautiful Day in the Neighourhood

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD. Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelecki Watson, Maryann Plunkett, and Christine Lahti. Also, Enrico Colantoni. Directed by Marielle Heller. Rated PG (Mild themes, violence and coarse language). 109 min.

This American drama was inspired by an article written by Tom Junod and published in the “Esquire” magazine in 1998. It is the story of a journalist working for that magazine who profiles an American television icon, Fred Rogers, who died in 2003. Rogers was the creator and host of a much-loved children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood” - an immensely popular American TV show for preschool children. The movie was chosen by “Time” magazine as one of the ten best movies of 2019. It tells the factual story of the close friendship that developed between Fred Rogers and Tom Junod, whose character in the movie is Lloyd Vogel.

In the film, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned by the Editor of Esquire magazine (Christine Lahti) to do a story on Rogers. He approaches Rogers with cynicism, not believing Rogers can ever be a thoroughly kind and decent human being. The exposure of Vogel to Rogers deeply affects both men. The film celebrates the healing power of Rogers’ positive words, and shows how they impacted on Vogel to significantly change his way of thinking and behaviour.

Tom Hanks gives a outstanding portrayal of Mister Rogers, winning people over by allowing them simply to “be themselves”. Hanks shares significant screen time with Matthew Rhys who impressively plays Vogel. The latter part of the movie throws the emphasis heavily on Vogel’s acting to show his transformation to a “decent human being” following contact with Rogers.

The film is structured like an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood”. It begins with Rogers introducing viewers calmly to a story about a journalist by the name of Vogel. Rogers’ goodness is projected through a series of anecdotes. He loves animals, relates warmly and positively to everyone he meets, wakes up daily at 5am to pray and swim, and enjoys taking photographs of everyone he meets to show his wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett).

In his interactions with Rogers, Vogel makes a personal journey from deep cynicism to awareness that Rogers is a person who emanates genuine goodness. The film is not a sentimental journey for the viewer. Goodness reveals its essence through the interactions of the two men with each other, and Rogers becomes a catalyst for Vogel re-assessing his conflicted relationship with his father which has negatively influenced his life.

The film is directed by Marielle Heller with great skill and sensitivity. She conjures up a positive mood that permeates the entire film. Using pre-existing footage, she uses toy cityscapes to create a highly unusual background for Rogers, but one that reflects his television programs. The film’s warmth makes it hard not to leave the cinema convinced of the goodness in Rogers, and life in general. Scenes in the movie explore Vogel’s scepticism of Rogers, and they highlight Vogel’s emotional journey, by showing that his behaviour is reflecting the influence of Rogers’ words.

The movie communicates the virtue of tolerant listening, honesty, and gentleness and works to turn Vogel into a much nicer person than he was before he began to interview Rogers. Vogel  began the movie by being an unhappy man. He struggled emotionally with a new baby, quarrelled with a loving wife (Susan Kelechi Watson), and fist-fought his heavily-drinking father (Chris Cooper) at a family wedding. He ends the movie as a better person. He becomes a more involved father, a more loving husband, and a more forgiving son. The scenes of reconciliation of Vogel with his dying father are powerfully effective, and very moving.

This is a highly unusual film that works to undermine cynical perceptions of goodness. The movie avoids sentimentality and convinces through the force engendered by quality acting and sensitive direction. It is about a man dedicated to entertaining children, but the film’s real strength lies in the way it reaches out in a very positive way to communicate inspiring ideals for grown-up adults.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Sony Pictures

Released January 23, 2020

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