“Beautiful Day” is way more than a biopic of Mr. Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper) – This almost perfect film is a salve for our turbulent times.  Tears will flow for many of you (the way they did for Julie and me) at many points in this movie.  Tom Hanks is so good at portraying Fred Rogers that we felt like we were being transformed to childhood, to a softer time when hokey props and a cardigan sweater felt like a safe, warm home.

I grew up with Fred Rogers.  A lot of you can say that; even more of your kids would echo that.  But for those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh, we knew Mr. Rogers way before the rest of the country.  Trained as a preacher, he chose kids as his ministry.  But there were those people who thought he was a prissy, untalented, too-good-to-be-true children’s entertainer.  Those people were wrong.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows the exceptional documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  See both.  They get to the essence of a man who was bullied as a chubby kid and who ultimately treated children as little humans with minds that needed nurtured and straight talk about the scariest parts of life.

But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not in any way a biography of Mr. Rogers.  It’s the story of an award-winning, cynical reporter, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), assigned the task of writing a mere 400 words about Rogers for an issue of Esquire magazine about heroes.  A good investigative reporter, Vogel heads to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers and, potentially, to expose him.  What follows is a human drama about anger, marriage, fatherhood, death and forgiveness.

The acting is impeccable.  This starts with Hanks, who slows his cadence to a lazy drawl as he creates an angelic tone that softens Vogel and emanates such raw compassion that the audience gets introspective.  In one amazing scene, Rogers asks Vogel to commit to one minute of silence while thinking of the people who have loved him.  The screen goes quiet for a full 60 seconds with the only images being Vogel’s face, Rogers, and the people in the restaurant in which they are sitting (including a cameo by Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife).  And during that minute, Hanks, as Rogers, looks at the cameras as if to ask each of us to take the minute.  Wow!

Rhys, who played Daniel Ellsberg in The Post, is phenomenal.  His facial expressions alone allow us to feel his pain, his cynicism, his revelations, his soft side, and his despair.   He absolutely holds his own with Hanks.  The supporting players, Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth on This Is Us) and Oscar Winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation), shine as Andrea Vogel (Lloyd’s wife) and Jerry Vogel (his estranged father).  Their performances are absolutely perfect – prominent without being intrusive, notable without being screen-eating.

Director Marielle Heller, who also helmed the exceptional Melissa McCarthy vehicle Can You Ever Forgive Me? coaxes these layered performances while using a fascinating mix of models and photography to tell this story of the legendary Mr. Rogers as healer, pastor, and humanist.

If ever we needed a story about kindness, hope and salvation, it is now.  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will warm your heart, delve into your soul, and entertain you while giving you a welcome respite from the trials and tribulations of the times.

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