Sometimes, a kind word from a stranger is the best thing in the world. Think about it. You have a moment of warmth when someone holds a door open for you or offers a random act of kindness, like telling you there’s toilet paper on your shoe.
Unfortunately, kind words and actions can be pretty scarce these days. Have you been on Twitter lately?
It’s why films like “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” are so important nowadays. The film tells the story of Mr. Rogers himself and the reporter determined to prove he was a fraud. Spoiler alert: The reporter fails.
Tom Hanks takes on the iconic role of America’s most-beloved children’s show host, Fred Rogers. It’s 1998, and Rogers has been selected by Esquire magazine for a profile in an issue dedicated to heroes. Assigned to do the story is investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a writer dedicated to uncovering dirty secrets and the stories his subjects don’t want told. In fact, he’s got quite a reputation for writing stories his subjects hate. When his editor, Ellen (Christine Lahti) assigns him the profile — which only needs to be about 400 words — she even tells him that Rogers was the only subject willing to be interviewed by Lloyd.
Lloyd is a man with a chip on his shoulder. He holds onto anger, resentment and an incredible amount of bitterness toward his father, a man who left his dying wife and two small children. Lloyd’s got a wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and a baby, yet he still works just as hard as ever. His wife is a lawyer who put her career on hold to stay home and watch the baby. Lloyd doesn’t even know how many diapers his son goes through in a day.
Everything comes to a head when Lloyd must face his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), at his sister’s wedding. It doesn’t go well, and Lloyd must face Mr. Rogers with a banged-up face and even more resentment toward the world. It doesn’t bode well for his interview. In fact, he becomes more determined with each interaction to find a flaw in Rogers’ good guy persona.
I’m a fan of Tom Hanks. I have been since I was a kid, but I still wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull this off. I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to lose myself in his characterization. Worse, I was a little worried this film wouldn’t be able to capture the magic of last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Y’all, I was wrong on all counts.
Hanks has this comfortable familiarity about him that just comes off the screen, no matter what the role. He manages to connect with audiences no matter what the role. Trapped on an island? We get it. He’s an astronaut trapped in space? Right there with you, Tom. He’s a wooden cowboy puppet? You’ll always be a favorite toy to us.
Mr. Rogers is no different. No, Hanks isn’t the physical embodiment of Mr. Rogers, but he’s got the heart to play the beloved figure we all loved from our childhood. He makes us smile, and he makes us feel like everything will be all right.
He does the same for Lloyd, despite the latter’s best efforts. Lloyd has spent his entire life carrying the weight of abandonment and pain. His father left, and he watched his mother die. He doesn’t think people like Fred Rogers actually exist. He thinks the kindness is just a gimmick Rogers has used to become famous and hoodwink America for decades. Seriously.
I found Lloyd’s story to be a tough one to watch. His relationship with Rogers is one of healing and one of forgiveness. He’s determined to prove Rogers is a fraud, but he instead realizes he’s the one who must accept who he is instead. With an estranged father myself, I understand where he’s coming from. It’s a difficult battle and one not everyone wins.
One of the things that makes this story more impactful is its cinematography. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is cleverly shot. It’s a mix of nostalgia with cityscapes shown in a similar style to the iconic model neighborhood. The effect is a constant reminder that no matter how dark Lloyd’s story gets, it’s part of a larger tale and Mr. Rogers will save the day.
All in all, it’s a tale that reminds us to forgive and love one another. We aren’t defined by our actions or our past. We can choose to be a shining example of compassion and love. Mr. Rogers taught us all these lessons, and it’s up to us now to live out those teachings.