REVIEW: Tom Hanks’ biopic honors Mister Rogers, evades pitfalls

Tom Hanks stars as Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a new biopic that shows Rogers’ lasting emotional impact on his audience and Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel. (Photo from IMDb)

There are a very few number of people in recent memory who have had as profound an impact on others as the late Fred Rogers did. His half-hour educational children’s series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted in 1968 and ran until late 2001, just a couple years before his death. 

Unlike any show before or after, its storied existence genuinely helped generations of children deal with their encounters with dark real-world problems such as death, divorce, discrimination and anger. Marielle Heller’s drama biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” takes an in-depth look at this figure’s powerful influence on humanity, faithfully honoring him whille avoiding the feeling of a puff piece. 

Heller’s film follows the real-life inspired story of Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is assigned to write a profile on Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a series on the country’s most important real-life heroes. Used to writing cynical exposés rather than flattering puff pieces, Lloyd finds it inherently impossible to believe Mr. Rogers’ optimistic character and effect on others. This internal struggle within Lloyd sets up the driving narrative of the film. How can someone so good as Mr. Rogers actually exist? 

Oddly enough, the most fascinating thing about the film is that it is not really about Fred Rogers. While the story is more centered on this jaded journalist’s profile on the man, the film never becomes a biopic on Mr. Rogers. Instead of focusing on the man himself with his values and flaws, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” shows what’s really more important — the power of Rogers’ impact on everyone he encountered. 

This can be seen through his impact on the emotionally complex lead character. Dealing with new fatherhood and deep-rooted issues with his own father, Lloyd serves as a conduit for the audience to have their own two-hour-long therapy session with Mr. Rogers. In fact, Heller artistically directs the entire film as if it is an installment of the children’s series, framing it within a meta-episode taught by Mr. Rogers himself.

While not the protagonist of the narrative, Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers lends the film its emotional resonance. He perfectly re-creates the kindred spirit of the great man without directly imitating him. The best parts of the film are the emotional moments where it’s as if Hanks’ Rogers is directly speaking to the audience, helping each person through their own issues. On the other hand, Rhys gives a more subtle performance of a broken, damaged man that fittingly serves the part. 

In its technical aspects, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a modest achievement. The film recreates old television footage of Mr. Rogers with Hanks to wonderful effect. The way the film incorporates the old show within its transitions and framing is marvelous. While never flashy, the editing and cinematography are done quite well, especially during some key moments in the film. Technical details really shine when the film cinematically infuses the miniature sets of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” within its own visual texture. 

The film’s screenplay is also strong. However, Lloyd’s actions sometimes feel a bit rushed. Throughout the film, the character occasionally makes slightly odd choices without enough dialogue setup, particularly in the tidy resolution of his arc near the climax of the film. Yet, Heller’s artistic direction turns this predictable progression into a marvelous climactic segment.

“A Beautiful Day in the  Neighborhood” ultimately serves as a great therapeutic device for anyone struggling through something in life — and who isn’t? Everyone’s human, even Mr. Rogers, and being human is hard. This film reminds people how important and special it is to be kind to others and vulnerable to ourselves.