On November 22, Focus Features releases “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a drama based on the of real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. Captivatingly directed by Marielle Heller, and starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, this is an enlightening film experience. One could even argue that it’s a film desperately needed for our times.
Many adults, who were too old for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when it premiered on PBS in 1968, didn’t really comprehend the mild-mannered TV host. They were familiar with that tune Fred Rogers sang at the opening of the program while slipping into sweater and sneakers, but paid little attention to the healing messages that permeated the weekday broadcast. They thought it was just a kiddie show, having no idea that this kind soul by the name of Mr. Rogers often was doing a parent’s job of convincing little ones they had value just as they were.
In preparation for seeing the screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” I rewatched last year’s 4-star documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” During the viewing of that production I realized just how special Mr. Rogers was not just for kids, but for anyone needing to be reminded that “a little kindness makes a world of difference.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” focused on how the premise for Mr. Rogers’ nearly four-decade-long series came about, along with his developing philosophy, “Television has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country.” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” on the other hand, centers around the effect Rogers (Tom Hanks) had on writer Tom Junod (Matthew Rhys).
Reporter Junod soon sensed that Mr. Rogers truly was a guileless man, and eventually came to renew a relationship with his own father because of Fred Rogers’ empathetic “witness.”
In this past decade I have been enthralled with such films as “The Tree of Life,” “The Life of Pi,” “Up,” “Hugo,” “War Horse” and a few others, because they were motion pictures that contained a spiritual quality as well as an entertainment “wow” factor. I wholeheartedly add both “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” to that august collection of best pictures.
The film is peppered with hilarity and poignancy. For example, a scene revealing the impact Mr. Rogers had on the culture shows him on a subway train, when teens and adults notice him and start singing his theme song. By the end of the sequence, as the remaining train full of travelers have joined in, I laughed and teared up at the same time.
“[Tom] Hanks’ Fred Rogers is not merely an impersonation,” says film critic Phil Boatwright. “There’s honesty in his every screen moment as he reveals this one-of-a-kind personage.”
One of the funniest moments in the picture, which also happened in real life, has Mr. Rogers attempting to set up a tent during a taping of the program and failing miserably. Visual comic Jerry Lewis couldn’t have displayed a more awkward adult trying his best to outwit an inanimate object. (I laughed so loud, I embarrassed myself. But then I thought Mr. Rogers would probably have gotten a kick out of my joyful response.)
After the taping of that flubbed sequence, the crew wanted to erase the clumsy take and do another one. But Hanks’ Fred Rogers liked the awkwardness of his effort because it let children see that sometimes adults fail too.
Hanks’ Fred Rogers is not merely an impersonation. There’s honesty in his every screen moment as he reveals this one-of-a-kind personage. Hanks gets who Fred Rogers really was – an ordained Presbyterian clergyman whose ministry was centered around the belief that children need adults to protect them from the many destructive influences that attempt to mold their world.
How truly timely these two films are for a divided nation searching for some sort of continuity. Like God’s Word, these two new productions emphasize that for healing to begin in our land, we must seek justice by keeping in mind this simple rule: “Love thy neighbor.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is rated PG-13 (a few crude words spoken by crew members – not Mr. R.)
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was unrated at time of screening (A few crude words, but no misuse of God’s name; a fight breaks out between a father and son, punches are thrown).
Neither film is made for children, but they each help adult viewers understand the needs of children.
Both movies and their shared subject challenge us to find what’s special in ourselves and in those around us.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Phil Boatwright is the author of MOVIES: The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Really Bad, available on Amazon.com.)