Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a journalist sent to interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the beloved children's television personality, just as his estranged father (Chris Cooper) attempts to reconnect with him after many years...
From the moment 'A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood' was announced, there was a sense of that while it was no doubt made with good intentions, it was impossible to shake the feeling that this felt like yet another dry, stale Oscar-bait drama with a convincing, if workmanlike performance from Tom Hanks attached. Instead, what director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue have done is something not necessarily unique, but definitely needed for a personality like Fred Rogers.
On this side of the Atlantic, Fred Rogers is something of an unknown entity. His beloved children's show, 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood', didn't broadcast here in Ireland and the connection that audiences might have with him would most likely be through the documentary, 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?', or through US pop culture. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter because both Tom Hanks' performance, the supporting characters around Matthew Rhys, and the script all supplement this and it works to provide context for when they meet.
Really, what 'A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood' is more of a family drama between Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Chris Cooper with a few key scenes with Tom Hanks woven into the fabric of it all. That, in effect, works far better than a run-of-the-mill biopic and gives us a deeper understanding of who he was. More than anything, what you get from Hanks' portrayal of Fred Rogers is a person who was truly loved, and had an unending supply of it himself that he shared with everyone and anyone who needed it.
It's easy to be cynical, and that by casting him against an angry journalist with father issues, we're seeing only the best possible side of Fred Rogers - but that isn't so. We can only see what we're shown, and even in the private moments, you can see that Hanks' performance redirects itself away from him so that we never quite fully see him. There's a brief scene where Mrs. Rogers, played by Maryann Plunkett, explains that Fred Rogers "works" on being who he is on a daily basis. There are glimpses of who Fred Rogers was behind closed doors, when he admits that he and his two sons didn't always have the best relationship.
It's enough to know, then, that he's human and his faults are the same as ours - but it's in how he chooses to deal with them that we see the measure of who he was. Hanks plays Fred Rogers beautifully, but credit has to be given to Matthew Rhys equally for not only carrying the story, but also acting as the audience's own reservations about him. Nobody can be that good, right? Like us, Rhys' character feels compelled to find the weak point or the moment of doubt, but that grim determination soon gives way to absolution by the end.
Marielle Heller's direction isn't showy or overbearing, but it makes for such an understated personality and in doing so, it allows the warmth and humanity to come to the surface easily. Likewise, the script - though it does use some familiar tropes - is able to adapt and balance together telling a convincing story with a meaningful attempt to give context to a person's life. By equal measure, 'A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood' is affecting, human, and honest. How rare it is for dramas with real-life characters, at this time of year, to be that way.