It’s strange seeing a film about a real person without personally having any history with them — especially someone as iconic as Mister Rogers.
I knew the name. I knew what his show was. I’d heard maybe hundreds of references to him in other pop culture. But there are 912 episodes over 31 seasons, and I haven’t seen a second of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” television show.
What’s even stranger is how unexpectedly and deeply the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” impacted me.
The current release from director Marielle Heller, out Nov. 22, is based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire cover story, a profile on Fred Rogers with the headline, “Can You Say … Hero?”
The movie follows dogged and cynical investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Junod’s name was changed), played by Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”), as he profiles Rogers.
Lloyd reminds his editor of that fact when she assigns him the (seemingly) fluffy profile on Rogers.
It’s easy to see parallels of yourself in fictional characters, and I couldn’t help but do so here. Obviously, Lloyd is a journalist, and there’s that connection — but it wasn’t about that. As I sat there, watching Rhys’ subdued and nuanced performance, his character skeptical of Rogers’ sincerity, I felt the same way about the film I was watching.
I was prepared to not like this movie. It looked like it was going to be cheesy and sappy (which it was at times).
It was so much more than that, and hit upon layers of humanity I had not expected.
Let’s start with this: Tom Hanks, who brilliantly plays Rogers, is a supporting character. The trailers imply that this is going to be the Tom Hanks Show, and that is far from the reality.
Lloyd is at the center, and Rogers is the vessel through which Lloyd finds himself.
The story starts with Lloyd winning a national award. Then, we follow Lloyd, his wife Andrea and their newborn son Gavin to his sister’s wedding. We quickly learn that daddy issues are afoot when Lloyd is not thrilled upon learning his father will be in attendance.
Confrontation ensues, Lloyd calls the resulting evidence a “softball injury” to anyone who asks, and he’s off to Pittsburgh for the “fluff piece.”
Rogers, by merely being his earnest and thoughtful self, unlocks an emotional awakening in Lloyd. The movie follows the time they spent together, a reporter-and-source relationship that blossoms into an unlikely friendship.
In their first interview, Lloyd asks about the “real” Fred Rogers, as opposed to the character he plays on television. Hanks, at his best, returns the inquisition with genuine curiosity about the notion that his TV persona deviates from his true self.
Like Lloyd, I found myself fully giving in to Rogers as the story went along. It was begrudging at first, and by the end, I was a puddle in my seat.
The dramatic tension and emotional through-line of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is forgiveness. It’s what Rogers talks about in the fictionalized episode at the beginning of the movie. And the way the forgiveness arc for Lloyd manifests in the story is eerily and unfortunately similar to an experience I went through a year ago. So it hit close to home.
Beyond personal parallels to the movie, the lessons Rogers invokes can truly go beyond a children’s show.
“I think I have a memory of thinking that the show was just all happy, or go-lucky or something, or just easy,” Heller, the film’s director, said in a Nov. 20 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “As an adult looking back, I realize that he wasn’t afraid of any of the hardest parts of childhood, or talking about the most uncomfortable things. He tells kids the truth. That is a radical notion, but he tells kids the truth. I was blown away going back and seeing the topics that he was covering on his show.”
Heller then told the story of watching the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode about death with her then-3-year-old. While it started as research for an upcoming film she was preparing to direct, it turned into a very real talk about death with her kid. And while she’s doing this, she’s channeling the person she’s about to bring to life on the big screen.
“I don’t think I handled it great, and I still feel sort of guilty for how this all came up, because I felt like, ‘Was it too young for us to kind of go there?’” Heller said. “But I also felt like all I had to guide me was Fred telling me we let the kids guide these conversations, listen and tell them the truth. So that’s what I tried to do.”
Rogers encouraged children to learn and face these hard truths. And the irony is that adults — like Lloyd, like me, like many — are often unwilling to face these same issues.
Maybe it takes a figure like Rogers, or even Tom Hanks playing a version of him, to allow that reckoning to happen. That was the power of what television could be for the real-life Rogers, and it’s fitting that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” my belated introduction to Rogers, achieved that for me.
Warner Strausbaugh is a Colorado Springs resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.