There is a lot of pain in this world. A lot of suffering, hurt, grief, upset. A lot of utter despair. No matter how hard you want it to stop, how badly you want to shake the thoughts of it from your head, it may never leave you alone. At times, it weighs you down, keeping you in a death grip until you turn blue, or lingers in the back of your mind ready to strike the second things start to feel good again. It’s ever-present.
If you feel this way, you may see a lot of yourself in Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a tormented soul, rendered jaded by perpetual pain. When we meet Vogel, he’s struggling with how the childhood loss of his mother and the abandonment of his mother affected him, more now than ever as his estranged father comes back into his life.
An award-winning writer for Esquire, Vogel has grown infamous for profiles on people; he actively chooses to see the worst in them and ruins them for the rest of the world by publishing his findings for the masses. His reputation for only seeking out the bad in people has turned many potential stories away as no one is willing to be interviewed by him any longer.
There’s only one person who will let Lloyd interview them, his editor tells him, for a short piece on what it means to be a hero. To Lloyd’s dismay, it’s Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks).
No matter how welcoming Mister Rogers is to him, he refuses to believe it. Instead, he’s convinced that he’ll uncover the truth behind the kind veil, as he is sure that it’s a full-time act. He asks Rogers whether or not it’s hard to distinguish between Fred Rogers the character and Fred Rogers the person, to which Rogers quite simply admits that he doesn’t understand the question. Rogers, his softest subject yet, proves to be the hardest to crack.
It’s because there’s nothing to get to the bottom of, no tricks, no acts. This is a film that celebrates those who choose to be kind, who choose gentleness, forgiveness and heart above all else. More than anything, it is about empathy; how we can help each other be better.
Tom Hanks sells this beautifully, warmth and tenderness underlining each word that comes out of his mouth. He fully embodies Mister Rogers, radiating friendliness and gentleness, especially in scenes that are meant to be scenes from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which he addresses the audience directly, telling us how to deal with our sadness and anger, telling us how happy he is that we’re alive. His presence, calming and refined, elevates the film.
This is not a straightforward biopic of Mister Rogers, of course, but this small glimpse into the way in which he treated the people around him says more than a full look at his life ever could. The story is based off of a lengthy article from Esquire titled “Can You Say … Hero?” by writer Tom Junod, who Lloyd isn’t directly based off but shares similarities, such as owning a beloved stuffed toy named Old Rabbit who Rogers says he’d love to someday meet. Many true details are brought from the article to the film, such as a scene in which a group of children see Mister Rogers on the bus but do not say hello; they, instead, cause the entire bus to break into an impromptu rendition of one of his songs. As Junod wrote, we also see Rogers’ habit of taking pictures of every single person he meets no matter how briefly they’ve interacted, as he wants to show his wife all of his new friends.
Scene transitions in which characters travel are portrayed by toy buses and planes zipping around in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; at one point, Rogers asks Lloyd to have a moment of silence and remember everyone who has loved him into becoming who he is today and then the entire restaurant falls silent.
The dreamlike energy surrounding scenes like these further the narrative that Mister Rogers was a saint come to life, something too wholesome to be human.
But that’s exactly what A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood refuses to do. According to Mister Rogers, if you get angry or sad, you can deal with those negative emotions quite easily: swim laps as fast as you can or slam the piano keys as hard as you can. Quietly, wordlessly, we see him, Mister Rogers, the man with nothing but happiness in his heart to spread to the world, do these things the same as Lloyd needs to. And A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood says that that’s okay.
Mister Rogers doesn’t have to be an otherworldly god-like figure; he was kind and wholesome just as he was. He was human, like the rest of us. And if one human could treat others with nothing but kindness and spread joy to the world even in times of pain and despair, certainly we all can as well.