Mister Rogers, as Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was known, thanks to his children’s programme Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, didn’t have much of a following in the UK, simply because his show wasn’t aired here. But there’s something of the old ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ tone in his voice, and seeing Tom Hanks’ take on the man in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, the nearest equivalent that came to mind was Blue Peter. But Rogers was too polished a man to have an elephant in the studio, let alone one emptying its bowels on air (for example), and he wasn’t the kind of man – as far as this movie is concerned, anyway – to go out and climb tall buildings or other outdoor exploits.
The whole film is essentially based on an article in the November 1998 issue of Esquire magazine, written by Tom Junod, called ‘Can You Say… Hero?’ The article itself is spot on in its description of Rogers’ voice – “that sounds adult to the ears of children and childish to the ears of adults”. A journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned by the editor of Esquire, Ellen (Christine Lahti), to interview Rogers for a 400-word article to be part of a larger feature on heroes. Because of his reputation as one of those rigorous investigative reporters who leaves no stone unturned, none of the other ‘heroes’ on Ellen’s hit list wanted to be interviewed by him.
Sure enough, Vogel attempts to uncover Rogers as someone who is quite different away from the television studio. This could even be a kind of Christmas story – the ‘Scrooge’ who is exposed to Rogers’ world, both on and off-camera, and finds himself reconciling with his family and altering his aloof and hard-nosed ways. And like Scrooge, Vogel has his reasons for not being very engaging, even when his father (Chris Cooper) actively wants to patch things up.
It is Vogel who initially reaches out to Rogers, and such is his level of interest in him that he even sets off to see Rogers yet again despite a family emergency, much to the chagrin of his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). Rogers does not appear to directly address Vogel’s warped priorities (perhaps he did not feel it would achieve anything positive), but instead asks him to think, during one minute of silence, about those who love him.
The cinematography is good, doing well to portray the picture quality (or relative lack thereof) in the days before high definition – the scenes with Mister Rogers in the studio coming across as though being played on a VHS player of old. The narrative is intriguing, and while there is some inevitable sweetness involved in the making of a children’s television series, as well as in the interactions Rogers has with people, it’s never overkill. Not even when an entire New York City subway carriage starts singing his theme tune back to him – children and adults alike.
Whatever one’s age or station in life, there is a considerable amount to think about in a film that talks about the need for tolerance, forbearance, love and forgiveness. I know I’m not the kindest of people (even if I could sort of justify that by saying that reviewers must be truthful about what they see and consequently write about) but, room for improvement being the largest in the world, there’s always scope to be that little bit more compassionate. A thoughtful movie about a remarkable man.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.