Lloyd Vogel is an investigative journalist who receives an assignment to profile Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers. Fred’s empathy, kindness and decency soon chips away at Vogel’s jaded outlook on life, forcing him to reconcile with his painful past.
I loved Mr. Rogers growing up. By the time I was watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood it was just the reruns, but it was still one of my favorite shows as a kid. I have vivid memories of the characters and the set, memories that were completely reinvigorated watching Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
This movie isn’t a straightforward biopic about Mr. Rogers. In fact, it’s not really about Mr. Rogers at all, but instead about the struggles of journalist Lloyd Vogel (who is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod) and how an unexpected friendship with the children’s television hero helped change his life. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking story that is based on an article written by Junod for Esquire magazine, profiling Mr. Rogers as an American hero.
There’s so much that this movie does right, but nothing is better than the way it captures the magic of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The whole movie is actually structured as an episode of the show, in which Mr. Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, tells the story of his new friend Lloyd, played by Matthew Rhys. The movie starts just like an episode of the show would have, with Hanks delivering a wonderful portrayal of everyone’s favorite sweater-wearing friend.
As things move along, we get more and more odes to the show. The thing that really drives it home is the way Heller uses establishing shots in the movie. While everything about the story of Lloyd and Mr. Rogers is obviously real, the establishing shots in the movie take you back to Mr. Rogers’ beloved TV show. All the establishing shots in the film use small, fake sets to show travelling, where characters are, etc. Just like in the TV show, this movie uses miniatures to establish the setting, and it’s really a great ode to the show and to Mr. Rogers.
The other thing Heller does to capture that magic is play with the aspect ratio of the film. Most of the movie, the scenes that are telling the real story of Lloyd, his family and Mr. Rogers, are shot in the standard 16:9 aspect ratio and look just like any other movie today. However, when we’re watching this extended “episode” of the show that lasts the entirety of the movie, that aspect ratio becomes square just like it would have been for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s a great visual tool to help show what is real and what is not, but also just gives the viewer a sense of belief that they are watching an old episode of the show.
That is really brilliant, and I think it really helps to make the viewer feel nostalgia and longing for the better days of childhood. It’s a theme that comes up often, as Lloyd is truly a broken, vengeful man, though Mr. Rogers refuses to call him broken. The relationship that the two form, and the way it helps to mend Lloyd’s other relationships, is beautiful, and it really makes the viewer feel the warmth of Mr. Rogers.
The one big detraction from this movie for me is a weird dream sequence about halfway through, which is the beginning of Lloyd’s acceptance of Mr. Rogers and his change. The dream sequence puts him on the set of the show, miniaturizing him to the size of a puppet. While the scene is important for the story of the movie, it feels really out of place and kind of takes you out of the film. It feels like a sequence from a science fiction thriller, not unlike something we saw earlier this year in Spider-Man: Far From Home. It’s out of place and completely opposes the tone of the rest of the movie, and I feel like it just did not belong.
However, the movie moves to one of its most powerful, unusual scenes shortly after, and a scene that is truly beautiful. With Mr. Rogers and Lloyd sitting in a restaurant for a meal, Mr. Rogers asks if Lloyd will take a minute to just be silent and think about all the people that have “loved him to where he is today.” The restaurant gets quiet, and the movie quite literally enters a moment of silence. There is almost no sound, apart from some ambient noise in the restaurant, as Lloyd and Mr. Rogers sit in silence reflecting. It is a powerful scene, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, and is something that really has an impact on the audience.
This movie, with a somewhat depressing storyline that becomes much brighter, is a feel good movie about a hero. Hanks is absolutely spectacular in capturing Mr. Rogers’ warmth and caring, while Rhys delivers a really convincing performance as a man trying to make himself better. There are a few moments that seem out of place, but for the most part this is a fantastic film that shows the better side of life.