I once had a chance to meet Mr. Rogers and I blew it. Nearly twenty years ago, I got a job at Rollins College, Fred Rogers’s alma mater, location in Central Florida. Rogers was visiting campus, dropping in on a couple classes. I could have easily pulled a few strings and popped into one of those classrooms, or otherwise insinuated myself into one of the meetings as Rogers made the rounds of the campus where he was one a studious participant. Instead, I let foolish cynicism rule my decision-making, asserting (to myself, if no one else) that I didn’t need to encounter this famous figure. I wasn’t seven years old. Certainly there wasn’t anything for me to learn. I stayed in my office, fiddling with necessary tasks that certainly could have set aside for an hour or two.
Part of the reason for my mistake is that I stupidly assumed the only value of briefly sharing a space with Rogers was exposure to celebrity. As Morgan Neville’s recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? clearly demonstrated, crossing into the personal orbit of Rogers yielded far more valuable rewards than a photo opportunity with someone famous. The gentle, nurturing television program he created was a reflection of his general being. By practically all accounts, Rogers operated with an almost superhuman level of kindness and empathy, sliding past all barbed barriers someone might erect to speak to a neglected inner being.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new feature directed by Marielle Heller, wisely structures an understanding of Rogers (played in the film by Tom Hanks) through a dramatization of how his sharing of attention could be transformational. In its basics, the film adheres to a recent standard in biopics, eschewing a straightforward progression through a notable life in favor of finding some singular instance hinge the narrative on. It resembles, among others, James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour in the use of a complicated journalist as storytelling entryway. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the journalist is Esquire staff writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a stand-in for Tom Junod, whose 1998 cover story provides the film’s source material. Lloyd is a notorious reporter, widely admired for the quality of his words and disliked for the venomous anger behind them. He’s an unlikely choice for the assignment of profiling Rogers, which is precisely why he’s the perfect man for the job.
As she did last year with the very fine Can You Ever Forgive Me?, director Marielle Heller homes in on the probing, problematic intelligence of her protagonist. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is unquestionably a film about Rogers — his spiritual bearing, his giving nature, his exacting commitment to his art and his life, and his constant striving to instill more decency into the world — but the character who progresses is Lloyd, overcoming his self-sabotaging anger as he belatedly learns the lessons Rogers hands down to the preschool set. The film is never trite, largely because Heller proceeds with bravery in tone and structure. There’s a meta element to the film, with Lloyd’s journey introduced by Rogers, as if in an episode of his program. It could by gimmicky; instead, it’s an immediate signal that the filmmakers are prepared to meet Rogers in the garden of communication he lovingly cultivated.
Especially when the film is a tandem, with both Hanks and Rhys excelling in their roles, it’s wonderfully effective. The more it indulges in Lloyd’s backstory, complete with a convenient emergence of family troubles long packed away just as the interviews with Rogers are taking place, the weaker the film becomes. Not coincidentally the portion of the screenplay that takes the most dramatic license, the clatter of Lloyd’s fraught family gatherings is needless distraction. The ache that needs soothing is evident in the weight of Rhys’s performance. Addition becomes subtraction.
I wish I’d met Rogers all those years ago, when he was just a building or two away from me. I also know that it’s okay that I didn’t. Physical proximity wasn’t necessary. In his life’s work, he’d already told me I was special. He was still my friend. He was still my neighbor.