A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Heller, 2019)

“I want the audience to feel like they’ve reconnected to their humanity in some way and found themselves feeling understood or seen through the movie.”
- Marielle Heller (Quoted in Erbland, 2019)


Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Rather than a biopic about Fred Rogers (Morgan Neville's touching 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? offers a more definitive take on his life and career), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Heller, 2019) is instead loosely based on the relationship between Rogers and the Esquire journalist Tom Junod and the article entitled Can You Say ...Hero? that Junod wrote following their time together. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), in a similar fashion to Lee Israel from Heller's previous film Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a cynical individual with a reputation for having a somewhat misanthropic nature. When forced to profile Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the host of the children's TV show Mr Rogers' Neighborhood, it's revealed that it's because almost no one else will agree to do any interviews with him, given the history of negative publicity he's generated for those he's written about in the past. Suffering both in his professional and personal life due to the contempt that he holds for his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who is trying to work his way back into Lloyd's life, Fred Rogers teaches him the value of forgiveness, and the importance of remembering his own childhood now that Vogel has just become a father himself. 

Fred Rogers
It's difficult.. scratch that, it's impossible to think of an actor more perfectly suited to the role of such a beloved figure than Tom Hanks. Given their wholesome public personas and the endless public stories of their kindness it would be easy to assume that Hanks just had to don a red sweater and play himself. This idea was one of the biggest challenges that the filmmakers knew they were facing when they set out to make the picture, this notion that 'Tom Hanks wasn’t acting when he was playing Mister Rogers' (Brodesser-Akner, 2019). But when asked about the differences between playing a hero vs playing a villain during the recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Hanks said that neither role was easier to play than the other: "They're the same exact beast", he said. In reality he found the role of Mr Rogers "terrifying", not least due to Fred Rogers' legendary status within his hometown of Pittsburgh where much of the film was made, making it a part which was almost impossible to live up to.

Mainly, there was a key aspect of Hanks' demeanour that Heller felt that she had to get her star to quash in order to really capture the essence of Fred Rogers. This was his energetic personality which was at odds with the children's television presenter, whose gentle, slow, soft voice was as much of a trademark as his sneakers and puppets were. This was one of the reasons why he was appealing to his young audience: 'It was easier for children to understand him [Rogers] if he spoke slowly... he was comfortable measuring his words, so he said what he meant' (Edwards, 2019: 3). Nailing such a manerism was much more important to the director than getting her star to look like the television presenter by using make up: “I just find when I watch a movie that has a lot of prosthetics and you're trying to portray a real person, I get really distracted... I'm performance first. I love actors and I love their performances" (At the Academy, 2019). Both Hanks and Rhys found this slowness difficult to adapt to: "Are you as exhausted by this as I am?" Hanks asked his co-star when the two were rehearsing (Quoted in Coyle, 2019). Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster's script contains exchanges between Fred and Lloyd that embraces the idea that meaningful communication can be achieved between individuals just by slowing down and listening. For instance, when Fred is trying to coax Lloyd into revealing who it was that he got into a fight with, Fred refuses to immediately speak back in response to his unsatisfactory answers because he knows the journalist is holding back. The silence that results from this forces Lloyd to drop the bombshell that it was his father whom he punched. In Won't You Be My Neighbor?, David Bianculli states that this was a common and perfect interviewing technique which Fred often utilised, because it forced his subject to share information that they otherwise wouldn't have.

"What we figured out in our research about Fred was that he really was comfortable sitting in silence and awkwardness." - Marielle Heller (Quoted in Gross, 2019)

As expected, the performances from the two leads are just one of the many joys of the film, despite these aforementioned difficulties. Rhys excellently portrays a man teetering on the edge of an emotional outburst after keeping his own anger bottled up for so long and as someone that, whilst sardonic, is still vulnerable, relatable and justified in the outrage that he carries with him (even if he must learn how to correctly express these feelings). As for Hanks, the most telling scene which makes it obvious that he wasn't just playing himself comes when Lloyd is watching a scene being shot between Lady Aberlin (Maddie Corman) and the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, whom Fred Rogers is voicing. Heller revealed in an interview where she walks us through this key scene, that Hanks was unaware his facial expressions were being filmed when he was operating, and eventually singing as the puppet. Although he figured this out after a few takes, the final scene that made it into movie comes from one of these 'secret' takes, and it's fascinating to watch the concentration on the actor as he perfectly mimics the voice and mannerisms of Daniel. It's an unoriginal and clichéd thing to say, but Fred Rogers feels like a role he was born to play. Like Viktor Navorski in The Terminal (Spielberg, 2004), a character who disarms each person he meets with nothing but his gracious nature and who gradually humanises even the most cold of individuals, his performance as Rogers unsurprisingly creates a similarly wondrous beacon of goodness. 

Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks

In Won't You Be My Neighbor?, there is a moment where Fred's colleague Bill Isler answers what he describes as the "universal question" - was Fred Rogers really "that way" in real life? A question surely on the lips of those who, like me discovered Fred Rogers later on in life as an adult, rather than as an impressionable child. Vogel is asking himself the same question as he prepares to write his profile, is Fred's generosity and decency genuine, or is it simply too good to be true? The picture doesn't go so far as to portray Mr Rogers as faultless, but instead as a man who his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) describes as imperfect, and who has to work hard every day at what he does. This exchange is a great reminder that his compassionate personality was a life-long practice, not an effortless routine for him (it's also a great setup for the song that plays half way though the end credits entitled You've Got to Do It, in which Rogers teaches children about the importance of perseverance). As such, Rogers felt it necessary to let children know that adults like him weren't immune to making mistakes just because they were grown up. The scene where Hanks tells his crew to keep the moment where he is unable to pitch a tent in the show is a reminder of this, but it also presents itself in more understated ways such as the introductory sequence when Hanks even struggles a just a tiny bit to get the zip on his cardigan to work and when he tries to sidestep Vogel's questions about the burden that he carries. The picture doesn't necessarily end with everything neatly tied up, the impressive oner which ends the film has Rogers hitting the lowest keys on his piano, which he revealed earlier on was his way of channeling the anger that he was dealing with. This felt like a surprising ending for the film to take, because it gives an air of humanity and mystery to a man who, on the surface seems like such a simple person to define.

Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Both Heller and Hanks have described A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for adults. As production designer Jade Healy states, this was their way of paying tribute to him: "From the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a film that felt honest, and something that Fred would’ve approved" (Quoted in Nolfi, 2019). This is reflected in the drive for authenticity that the picture strives for throughout, evident right from the start when the traditional production company logo music is replaced by a Celesta stand in reminiscent of the sounds used on Mr Rogers’ own show, as well as the film's title treatment which is stylised in the same font as the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood one (like the recent documentary Apollo 11 which begins with the old style Universal intro, it also uses a grainy Tristar logo to bring us immediately into the time period where the film takes place). In fact, the structure of the entire movie is framed around the concept of Fred Rogers telling the viewers on his show about his friendship with Vogel, using a picture board to outline his relationship with the journalist. Even when transitioning from location to location, miniature models like the ones used in the show's intro are included as stand ins for the generic footage of airplanes taking off and landing on the tarmac which we are accustomed to. Returning composer Nate Heller's score has a whimsical quality to it, thanks to his inventive choice of faintly injecting his music with an instrumental offering of the Rogers song It's You I Like at several points.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes believed these decisions to be the crew's way not just of bringing us into the universe of Mr Rogers, but also the mind of our main character, Lloyd Vogel: "The show becomes a part of his life and reshapes how he sees the world. So we asked ourselves, when does the show’s aesthetic spill over into the look of Lloyd’s world? How do we show Fred seeping into Lloyd’s subconscious?" (Quoted in Dillon, 2019). All of this is a subtle way of showing us how he has become a convert to Fred's way of thinking. The filmmakers shot in the same WQED studio and scrupulously researched the layout of the Neighborhood set, even gaining access to some of the ties that Fred Rogers wore. During these moments where we are looking inside the world of The Neighborhood, we lose the crisp, clear visuals as the aspect ratio is switched from the common widescreen 1.85:1 to the square 1.33:1 format which results in a VHS style presentation of events that are uncanny when watched alongside the original shows. The film takes almost every opportunity to inject into it a nostalgic element of Mr Rogers' Neighborhood, making it feel like a love letter to the cherished programme, an evocative re-imagination of a half hour children's TV show rather than the by-the-numbers biopic that it could have easily been in lesser hands.

Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys in An Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Heller doesn't just capture the characteristics of an episode of Mr Rogers' Neighborhood through these aesthetic inclusions. At several key points her choices do an amazing job of pinpointing what it was that was key to Fred Rogers' appeal for many viewers. This was the idea that he was speaking to viewers directly, that despite the millions of people watching the show he was speaking his words of comfort to one person in particular: you. This was something Rogers learnt early on in his television career when he was an assistant, asking the star he was working with how they managed to connect so well with an audience, they replied: 'The only way to manage a television role is to convince oneself that one is speaking only to one little child' (King, 2018: 87). The way in which he looked into the camera and calmly addressed the viewer like an old friend is acutely realised during a particularly striking moment in the film when Rogers is introducing Vogel to his puppets. The journalist, who is somewhat disconcerted about the fact that Rogers seems to be the one interviewing him instead of the other way around, is reluctant to talk about his own demons that are plaguing him. Rogers disarms him by using his puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger to communicate instead, in one instance turning the puppet to meet Lloyd's eyes, at which point we get a first person view from the journalist's perspective as he is looking at Daniel, and Daniel at us. This isn't the last time Heller will pull this trick on us to put viewers into the shoes of someone receiving Rogers' wisdom, and it works because it puts into practice one of his most admirable qualities: "Every person I talked to said when you were talking to Fred, you felt as though you were the only person in the world that mattered to him" (Hanks, quoted in King, 2019).

Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodHowever, the most memorable moment of the film, and one that perfectly captures one of the key themes not just of an episode of Mr Rogers' Neighborhood but of Fred Rogers' beliefs himself comes when Fred asks Vogel to think of the individuals in his life who have "loved him into being" whilst the two are in a restaurant. It plays out similarly to the tear-jerking ending of Won't You be My Neighbor?, in which the interviewees are asked to do the same. It was something he would commonly do at public events, and even made a hall full of television stars (and by extension the millions of people watching on TV) stop and think for 10 silent seconds about the people who helped to make them become who they are when he collected his lifetime achievement award at the 1997 Emmys, even looking at his watch to count the time go by. Here, Heller makes the bold decision to literally take the entire one minute that Fred asks for, having nothing else but silence from our two leads as well as the strangers within the restaurant (populated by actual cast and crew members of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood) as they ponder what Rogers has just asked. Screenwriter Noah Harpster has said that “from the beginning, this project was a chance to have Fred Rogers talk to adults in the way that he spoke to children”(Quoted in Nolfi, 2019), which is precisely what this moment succeeds in. When the film brakes the fourth wall and has Hanks look into the camera directly at us, it's clear that we are too are being asked to join in on this moment of reflection, to appreciate those who have helped us become the person we are today. One of the most remarkable achievements of the film is this way in which it is brave enough to slow down and embrace silence, just as Fred Rogers did, who once told journalist Charlie Rose that revelation emerged from silence. The revelation here is that despite describing himself as a "broken" person, Lloyd quite clearly is able to fulfil Fred's request and think about the people in his life whom he loves, and who love him back. As we see his emotions start to show through whilst he is contemplating, the journalist is finally beginning to open up to his new friend, who preached to children that it's okay to have these feelings, that they shouldn't be hidden and that the important thing is how these feelings are expressed and dealt with. 

'Among the values that he [Rogers] represented to viewers was the unusual one of patience...he worried about the lack of silence in a noisy world.' (King, 2018: 9)

Fred Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has been described, quite rightly, as the film that we need right now, and it's telling that two movies featuring Fred Rogers have come out in such quick succession. The film's qualities are no different to the characteristics of Rogers himself: warm, empathetic and compassionate. Even with only three films under her belt it's clear that Marielle Heller is such a great talent. After going into Can You Ever Forgive Me? at the start of the year with no expectations and leaving the cinema with, quite honestly, a new favourite film of the decade, there was a great sense of anticipation walking into A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was not only met but surpassed by the surprising and at times surreal elements that the picture included. By viewing the story though the eyes of a relatable outsider such as Lloyd, who is a stand in for usaudiences are given a deeply personal experience which a standard biopic simply would not have been able to offer.  It simply is a (no pun intended) beautiful film that, rather than going down the predictable route of suggesting its famous subject matter was an impossibly perfect person, instead teaches us that the way of life of an individual such as Fred Rogers is, in the words of his wife, attainable. Heller and the screenwriters have made their hero into someone whose example we can still follow despite his superhuman reputation. While we may not have millions of adoring children watching us on television every day like Rogers did, it's worth remembering the words that ended his 2002 Dartmouth commencement speech: "You don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you". 

References

At the Academy. 2019. Making Mr. Rogers. At The Academy. [Online] Available here: https://attheacademy.oscars.org/article/a-beautiful-day?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20191206_Newsletter

Brodesser-Akner, T. 2019. This Tom Hanks Story Will Help You Feel Less Bad. New York Times. [Online] Available here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/movies/tom-hanks-mister-rogers.html?smtyp=cur&smid=fb-nytimes&fbclid=IwAR2SNVCld_ih6g5zPGOapZ8T-39u4EULToiuwYxeMFRUj51t8fWestxV4SA

Coyle, J. 2019. Tom Hanks didn’t want to be Mr. Rogers. Then he met Marielle. AP News. [Online] Available here: https://apnews.com/51255098cc9441da8dbf57d7951645d8 

Dillon, M. 2019. Jody Lee Lipes on Shooting A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. American Cinematographer. [Online] Available here: https://ascmag.com/articles/jody-lee-lipes-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood

Edwards, G. 2019. Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever. Dey Street Books: New York

Erbland, K. 2019. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Marielle Heller Reveals Her Secret to Avoiding Biopic Traps. IndieWire. [Online] Available here: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/11/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-marielle-heller-biopic-mr-rogers-1202190638/ 

Gross. T. 2019. Beautiful Day Director On Mister Rogers Radical Notion: Telling Kids The Truth. NPR. [Online] Available here: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/29/782941877/beautiful-day-director-on-mister-rogers-radical-notion-telling-kids-the-truth

King, M. 2018. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. New York: Abrams Press.

King. G. 2019. Tom Hanks says Playing Mister Rogers was Terrifying: Everybody Has an Idea of what Fred is. CBS This Morning. [Online] Available here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-hanks-playing-mister-rogers-in-a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-was-terrifying/

Nolfi, J. 2019. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood writers break down Tom Hanks' powerful minute of silence scene. Entertainment Weekly. [Online] Available here: https://ew.com/movies/2019/11/25/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-minute-of-silence-tom-hanks/ 

Nolfi, J. 2019. How A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shrunk Pittsburgh. Entertainment Weekly. [Online] Available here: https://ew.com/movies/beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-production-design-jade-healy/?slide=6565026#6565026

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