Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh better known simply as Mr. Rogers, is an unlikely person to be at the subject of a movie. The enemy here that he seeks to defeat isn’t Satan, as one might assume because of his religious affiliation, but instead a child’s self-judgment and the ever-apparent despair that accompanies it.
The beginning is set up much like a traditional Mr. Rogers’ episode—complete with the show’s sparkling piano music, miniature city sets and the star (played by Tom Hanks) arriving home, singing while changing his sweater and shoes. The movie then follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist assigned to write an inoffensive article on the kid’s TV show host for Esquire magazine. But Roger’s empathy, kindness, and decency soon chip away at Vogel’s jaded outlook on life, forcing the reporter to reconcile with his own painful past and his fury with his father.
Vogel sees that the supposedly timid television personality has dealt with issues head-on that few others in media would; issues that continue to have an impact: war, racism, health issues, divorce, and death. These are serious things, and Rogers treats them with the care and insight they are so deserving of, in a tone that is softer and more halting than one would expect given the subject matter. But, he envelopes those that might be affected by the issues in warmth, reassuring his young fans that each of them is special. That they are loved. That they have value. He offers the same lessons to the adults in his life, too. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t so much a biopic as it is a way to look at the way Rogers affected generations of children, young and grown. It crafts a new story while focusing on Vogel, someone who needs to hear these lessons.
Every moment onscreen becomes a teachable one. When he struggles to set up a tent for the show, he suggests keeping it intact: “Even when adults make plans they don’t always turn out the way they hoped.” The more time Vogel spends with Rogers, the more he realizes that what you see is what you get.
Rogers’ integrity and intentionality lend more authority to the lessons he tries to teach. He tries to help Vogel learn the importance of forgiveness—an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially for Vogel, who already has so much to forgive.
In the movie, Fred’s wife, Joanne, tells Lloyd that Fred isn’t who he is by accident. His intentionality, his kindness, his goodness are products of not just who Fred is, but of who he wants to be and who he thinks he needs to be for the children who watch and trust him. He talks to Lloyd about how sometimes he feels like mashing all the low keys on his piano down—hard. “BOOM!” He growls for effect. All of those emotions are real and important. They are not wrong. We all can be sad or scared or angry. It’s what we do with them—or what we end up undoing because of them—that matters.
The world is filled with ugly neighborhoods, yes. But if you look closely, you’ll find beauty in them, too, along with the beauty in each of us, just as Rogers found in Vogel. If we try, we can make our neighborhoods a little more beautiful, just by being us—the us we are and the us we want to be. We can turn our pain to purpose, much like Lloyd did. We can love, just as we already are. The film landscape of Hollywood is jammed full of stories: fun, powerful, poignant. Many movies can make viewers laugh or cry, but few manage to make them think as easily and as deeply about life as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does. That is what makes it a beautiful film. This love letter to kindness is a solid player at a time when said virtue is in desperately short supply around the world.