When me meet Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) at the start of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new Fred Rogers biopic directed by Marielle Heller, he is giving a speech at the National Magazine Awards. Having won the year before for his tough-headed journalism that doesn’t make him many friends, Lloyd is presenting the award to this year’s recipient. Without any vigor or pomp, he delivers his canned address by making appeals to the power of journalism. With magazines, Lloyd and his peers can “change a broken world with [their] words.”
But Lloyd clearly doesn’t believe that. At least, he doesn’t have the conviction he might have once had that could convince us that he believes it. Later, we hear him remark flippantly about his sister’s most recent marriage. At this wedding reception, he will punch his estranged father in the face and be given a gashed nose and black eye in retaliation.
Lloyd is a husband and recent father. But he is also quick to leave this family unit in order to pursue his work (even if that work doesn’t seem to appeal to him). His wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is patient with his flightiness and blind-sided stubbornness, but it still feels as though Lloyd is one misstep away from sabotaging his marriage.
Why does a synopsis for the Mr. Rogers biopic require so much talk about a random journalist for Esquire? Because Heller’s film is as much an examination of harmful masculinity as it is a celebration of the one-of-a-kind kindness of Fred Rogers. Lloyd is the conduit into this two-pronged approach. Initially sent on a “puff piece” assignment to write 400 words on Fred Rogers for an issue on American heroes, Lloyd feels there is more to tell about the enigmatic personality. He feels this way not because he thinks Rogers deserves more attention as a heroic figure, but because he cannot believe that a man would be so kind and earnest without having some sort of ulterior motive.
In the process of following Rogers on- and off-set and interviewing him sporadically, Rogers turns the tables on Lloyd, asking the interviewer questions that force Lloyd to re-examine how he expresses his feelings.
Admittedly, it is a strange conceit for a biopic, but it is also what sets A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood apart within that genre. A biopic of Fred Rogers could have been simple, coasting off of the power of his empathic persona. It could have been a basic story charting the man’s career, perhaps culminating in an overly-emphatic climactic sequence in which Rogers addresses the Senate Subcommittee in charge of funding public media.
Instead, Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster give us a film in which Rogers is an actual character as opposed to merely a symbolic figure (he still functions as a symbol here, but it is handled in a clever way) or a series of biographical bullet points. Furthermore, the film interrogates the distinction between the man’s private self and his public persona in a fascinating way. The blurring of the two is both the instigator for the film’s plot and the reason for the resolution; it is the beating heart of the film in an intriguing way.
This is not to say that the film runs smoothly throughout. The way in which the film engages with Lloyd’s coming to terms with his emotions is not always productive. Namely, his initial denials are manifested in nightmarish dream sequences. In one, puppets from Rogers’ show haunt him. In another, he and his family become characters in the show. It is a somewhat silly externalization of Lloyd’s central conflict that doesn’t meaningfully progress his character.
Fred Rogers is played by Tom Hanks, an actor whose off-and-on-screen persona has some parallels to Rogers, in that both wear their genuine nature on their sleeves. However, the casting is mostly distracting, not because Hanks give a poor performance per se, but because his persona and Rogers’ do not mesh as seamlessly as one might hope.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a biopic that tows the line between the conventional and the unique. It hits the expected emotional appeals where it counts without being cloying. It also takes an interesting storytelling approach, using the image of Fred Rogers not merely to celebrate his legacy but to also examine what it means to nurture emotional intelligence. The confluence of these two ideas makes for a thoroughly compelling and emotionally satisfying experience.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)