“Do you know what that means? To forgive? It’s a decision we make to release a person from the feelings of anger we have at them,” says Tom Hanks near the beginning of director Marielle Heller’s latest film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. He’s sitting on a blue bench, legs crossed, hands clasped on a knee, in a television set made to look like a home. The camera narrows in, as if to lean forwards. “It’s strange, but sometimes, it’s hardest of all to forgive someone we love.” So goes the passive philosophy of children’s television host Fred Rogers, whom Hanks plays. It’s a moral code that less instructs but validates: a fine web of observations that hold clear, perfect emotional intelligence.
In A Beautiful Day (and in real life too), Mr. Rogers is not preachy – he does his work by giving light to the friction between compassion, kindness, and honesty, and the other, darker things. Mr. Rogers is religious, but his philosophy bears no end goal; there’s no ambition, only acceptance. There’s nothing even as resolute as hope. In fact, he had found an ingenious, happy logic to circumvent the evil in people, and to see everyone as equally good – by measuring our goodness by how capable we are of being loved. And then by acknowledging that we are all, unconditionally, capable of being loved. In A Beautiful Day, Hanks as Rogers methodically and melodically embodies that sort of big love. His gentleness in this picture is so tender and light as to be heartbreaking. Everything around him milks and softens. He appears to be the very best type of human being. He does not appear to be real.
With this sense of apotheosis, there’s a danger for things to become artificial or forced – with a misplaced swell of violins, or glib aphorism, for example – but there’s little of that here. (There is, however, a scene where an impromptu singalong erupts on a subway carriage for which one may choose to suspend some disbelief, despite it having actually happened in real life). The most compelling moments seem to be in watching Mr. Rogers at work: wrestling with a giant grey tent that refuses to open, or working a hand puppet in the shadows, face half obscured and strained in careful concentration, lips pursing to emit Daniel Tiger’s shy, quiet rasp. There, he appears to be someone just doing his job – in his words, “to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.” It feels at once both humble and awesome. Though shedding his red cardigan, he is much the same: saintly without respite. That is, however, despite his wife’s (Maryann Plunkett) insistence against that term ‘saint’: “if you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable.”
But Heller, in depicting Fred Rogers, rides the line closer to deification than to humanisation. Her fear of blemishing Mr. Rogers’ character is almost blatant. Rogers speaks in sweeping, universal adages – “there is no normal life that is free from pain” – instead of offering personal revelations. When a journalist asks Rogers a difficult question – one that may spark from him some sort of intimate confession or force some insight into his own private experiences of despair or loneliness – Rogers deflects. He pushes his fingers down with a low, guttural thud in the throat, on the bottom keys of an imaginary piano. BOOM. This is territory Heller dare not enter.
Is this out of respect for the late Fred Rogers, or trepidation in tarnishing his image? But either way, can you blame her? A Beautiful Day, after all, seems less about excavating Fred Rogers’ private life, and more about tracking the transformative power of his philosophy. The latter is purposed through loosely adapting the real-life encounters between journalist Tom Junod and Fred Rogers in 1998, which culminated in Junod’s profile of Rogers (which I’d encourage reading: the warmth and wonder of the piece is something to behold). Here Junod is replaced with sceptical journalist Lloyd ‘broken-person’ Vogel (Matthew Rhys), whose character arch flows smoothly and predictably to its finish, as he realises the necessity for forgiveness and the gravity of love after speaking with Mr. Rogers – which all seems a little trite. Compared to Heller’s 2018 Can You Ever Forgive Me? anti-hero, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), whose (personal and legal) crimes were absolved by equal doses of charm and pathos, Lloyd’s character is a bit too punitively stubborn, and later too passively sweet, to spark any deep complexity. He does act, however, as a good sore for Fred Rogers’ moral balms. Over the series of interviews, interspersed in the film, between them both, Hanks’ mellifluous intonation, soft eye contact, and active listening became overwhelmingly therapeutic even to me, an audience member (and someone who shared little in common with Lloyd’s weirdly horrible sob story). Rogers, and Hanks, after all, are magical people. Their acts transcend the screen.
How lucky we are to have them. There’s a companion piece to A Beautiful Day: last year’s Fred Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? – a celebration of the cardiganed hero, in which director Morgan Neville drew together archival footage and interviews with Rogers’ friends and family. There’s a specific bit in that film that rid the cinema of dry eyes. It’s when Fred Rogers, speaking at a podium in the Television Hall of Fame, asks of his audience – us – to take ten seconds “to think of some of those people who have loved us, and wanted what was best for us in life.” The documentary lets those ten seconds pass. This bit is repeated in A Beautiful Day. Rogers sits with Lloyd in a restaurant, and he comes up with the idea. “We’ll just take a minute, and think about all the people who loved us into being.” Hanks takes out his watch. And as if by magic, the patronage around them start to still. The air in the restaurant shifts and slows. Heads bow, mouths slow their chewing, gazes fall. The minute starts, the volume lowers. There’s something in that quiet.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood plays in Australian cinemas from 23 February.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.