“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood. A beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”
Anyone who was a kid from the 1960’s to the 1990’s and beyond recognizes Mr. Rogers and his neighbor song. The man defined children’s programming for television, and he did so from a small studio tucked away in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania for almost 40 years. There aren’t many people living in this country who don’t at least know who Fred Rogers was. It would be a complete waste of my space and your time to tell you very much about the man in these lines. Truthfully, you’ll make the kinds of discoveries into the nature of who he was by spending a short 90 minutes watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor that appeared last year. It will be time well spent no matter how little or much you think you know about him. But now hot on the heels of that incredible documentary comes a film staring Tom Hanks as the lovable neighbor we all used to wish we had. Recently Ancestry.com confirmed that Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers are related. Of course you have to go back the pre-revolutionary days of 1734 to find this elusive relative. But you won’t have to time travel to spend a magical time with Mr. Rogers and Tom Hanks. In 2019 they happen to be the same man.
Lloyd Vogel is played by Matthew Rhys. I have loved his work in The Americans recently, and it’s a treat to see him in such a prominent feature film role. He is a reporter for Esquire Magazine. He’s a cynical kind of guy who always finds a way to turn even the nicest situations into an expose. When the magazine decides to profile some heroes, he is given the job of writing a small blurb on Fred Rogers. He isn’t too happy about it, but his editor tells him that Rogers is the only one on the list who was willing to talk to him. His reputation has become something of an albatross. It’s a bad time for Lloyd. His sister is getting married, something he calls an annual event, and he encounters a father for whom he holds a lot of rage and bitterness. They get into a fight, and Lloyd is about to meet Fred Rogers with a black eye.
When Lloyd arrives at the studio where the show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is filming, he a bit fascinated by the process. Rogers approaches him with complete kindness and warmth. The rest of the staff feel protective of their star and aren’t quite so welcoming. Rogers notices his eye and won’t buy his story that it was a close play at the plate while playing baseball. The fact that it’s winter might have helped give him away. The two end up meeting several times, but in each instance Rogers manages to turn things around and asks the questions, often about his relationship with his father and other heartaches he might be experiencing. The interviews frustrate Lloyd, who believes there’s something else under that calm and forgiving façade, and he tries to quit the process. But Rogers pursues him with an almost obsessive desire to help him.
The two end up friends after Rogers shows up while Lloyd’s father is dying with the family gathered at his home. He ends up writing more than his blurb and gets the magazine’s cover story.
I’ve heard interviews with the real journalist who claims Rogers literally turned his life around. The reporter’s real name is Tom Junod, and I’m not certain why his name had been changed.
The film goes about telling its story in a clever and unusual way. It starts out with the introduction of a typical Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode. Hanks strolls in and sings the song while changing into those iconic sweater and sneakers. He introduces Lloyd as a photograph on a board of doors, and from there on each segment or act of the film starts as if it were part of an episode. Transition scenes don’t use the usual transition shots of a city or building. Instead they’re all models that appear in the same artistic style of the show itself including little model airplanes landing and taking off as Lloyd keeps going back and forth between New York and Pittsburgh. I thought I would find that distracting, but far from it; it was quite endearing and really kept the perfect mood for the film.
The two actors share some awkward chemistry that grows over time. Both Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys are perfectly placed in their respective roles. It might well be my favorite performance from both accomplished actors. The dance that occurs between them throughout the show is so simple, but it conveys such complicated emotions and ideas that it really does become a kind of “lost” episode of the show delivering lessons when you didn’t even know you were learning.
Fred Rogers’ widow Joanne Rogers makes a cameo and was involved in the production, and she’s very happy with the film. Before the film started, our press screening was treated to an introduction by her, and she told us how happy Fred would have been that Tom Hanks was playing him. I can understand her happiness, because this really was an extended episode of the show.
Finally, you might be disappointed if you are a huge Fred Rogers fan. He’s not the main character of the film. The focus is really on the Lloyd Vogel character, and Fred is very much a supporting role in the movie. Some might not like the idea, but let’s face it; Lloyd’s story is the one of change and enlightenment. He’s the character who has things to learn, and he’s the character who is on a journey. Fred Rogers is Fred Rogers as a character. His presence creates that change, but Fred’s not going anywhere. Fans need to understand why the dynamic sets the focus. If you look past such petty things as screen time or whose story is actually being told, you’ll agree the film does nothing but reveal Fred Rogers as the hero of someone else’s story. You can understand that, right? “I knew you could.”