Changing Channels

This unconventional biopic explores the origins of Mr. Rogers’ goodness

FILM  by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
RPL Theatre
March 20-22

Coming a year after Morgan Neville’s acclaimed 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this biopic by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) felt redundant when it was first announced. Thankfully, Heller takes a unique approach to her subject, PBS icon Mr. Fred Rogers, tackling him indirectly through the eyes of a non-believer, which makes him seem both more human and more remarkable.

The film opens with a tableau from a forgotten time, when a print publication could afford to fly a journalist from New York to Pittsburgh for a 400-word profile. The journo in question, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys, The Americans), is a hard-as-nails reporter who has burned so many bridges his editor has no option but to set him up with a puff piece about heroes.

Reluctantly, Lloyd sets an appointment with Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks), only to discover that Rogers doesn’t have a “TV persona”. What you see is what you get. Not only that, he’s far from a well-meaning simpleton. He’s as angry as the rest of us, but chooses to channel this negative energy into bettering himself.

Lloyd’s adversarial relationship with his dad (Chris Cooper), and anxiety over his own parenting skills both benefit from his contact with Mr. Rogers. There’s something soothing about the knowledge that becoming a good person can be as simple as deciding to be one. In fact, it’s not even about being good, but working at it.

Heller makes the movie visually inventive by turning Pittsburgh and New York into extensions of the “Neighborhood”. Hanks is reliably solid, although I found it difficult to forget I was watching him pretend to be Mr. Rogers.

That said, the real anchor of the film is Rhys, who makes bitterness and mistrust strangely compelling. His character is based on Esquire writer Tom Junod, who was supposed to deliver a photo caption on Fred Rogers and came back with a 3000-word profile, and a fresh perspective on life.

I actually had that happen once myself when Blake Lively touched my arm at a junket. Well, it was almost the same.