I’m going to strongly recommend that you see this surprisingly engaging movie. I’m also going to recommend that you bring some Kleenex.
Is it possible that Fred Rogers has been gone for sixteen years already? And how can his show be a childhood touchstone for so many generations of viewers? Perhaps because the show’s lengthy national run between 1968 and 2001 overlaps so many early learning years among those of us who grew up watching network television. A short gap between 1976 and 1979 was addressed in the film as a period during which Fred, “ran out of things to talk about.” The first “last” show aired on February 20, 1976. On a personal note, this was the day before my mother died, and I never needed Mister Rogers more than I did then.
Fred’s own growing young sons eventually gave him plenty more to talk about, and the show resumed for another long stretch, surpassing Captain Kangaroo as the longest running children’s television program. It took Sesame Street to raise the bar further.
The surprise I mentioned earlier regarding this film was the less-than-strictly-biographical nature of the script. Sure, it was about Fred and his show, but they merely provide a wrapper for the story within, that of the relationship with his true-life friend, journalist Tom Junod. He becomes Lloyd Vogel in the film, interviewing Rogers for a short 1998 Esquire piece that becomes much longer as their friendship deepens. Try as he might, Vogel cannot peel the pretense of Fred from his “character” and is unable to separate the two for the purpose of an expose. Vogel’s wife warns, “Don’t ruin my childhood, Lloyd!”
Eventually Rogers begins speaking through his puppets, at which point Lloyd somewhat angrily says, “Put the puppets down Fred!” Vogel is played with cynical intensity by Matthew Rhys who is currently filming a made for TV Perry Mason reboot.
Filmed in the original Neighborhood studio, cameras can now sweep through the meticulously rebuilt miniature streets with a clarity and consistency that helps our journey along. A fun use of deliberately clumsy props is employed between scenes, jetting Vogel from Pittsburgh to New York on a little wooden airplane that dangles precariously from a string on take off and landing. Here we enjoy a camera zoom out from Mister Roger’s house in the neighborhood, up and over a hill, panning to a distant shot of pre 911 Manhattan, illuminated at night and dissolving slowly into reality.
I expected a standard biopic of the Fred Rogers story. Tom Hanks was the draw for me. And in the standard opening segment, Fred changing into slippers and a sweater, I half expected a Saturday Night Live sketch to ensue. At first, Hanks seems to be channeling the wisdom of Forrest Gump, but after a while you believe you’re watching the real Mister Rogers, the utterly non-judgmental Presbyterian Minister who just wanted people to feel good about themselves, a man who, “didn’t want to eat anything that had a mother.”
We are treated to behind-the-scenes views of Rogers voicing his simple puppets, approving each take of his beloved show, and riding the subway home, serenaded by a chorus of loving fans singing his theme song. At this point there was a soft sing-along in our theater by viewers caught up in the moment. Like I said, Kleenex.
Director Marielle Heller, uses the same color-rich and up-close style as her 2018 Can You Ever Forgive Me? and delivers the most powerful cinematic minute of the year, literally a silent countdown in real time during an “exercise” that Rogers likes to use. Patrons in the restaurant in the scene, and those in the theater in which we sat, seemingly stopped breathing as Hanks looks directly into the camera. You won’t believe how long a minute can be.
If you’d like to visit the Land of Make Believe one more time, see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. All of your old friends are here: King Friday the thirteenth, Daniel Tiger, Trolley, Mister McFeely and Lady Aberlin. Be warned, there are some mildly adult themes and scenes that might not be appropriate for your own very young children and grandchildren. For the original feel, treat them to some old shows which are certain to be available online.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019 ) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated PG.
Should I see this movie?