Most of the positive press about this film has to do with “how much we need a movie like this right now,” and there’s a good deal of validity to those sentiments. An openly emotional movie that neutralizes cynicism is a tonic to the current zeitgeist. What’s often being lost in the discussion (which too often has a condescending political edge to it) is the actual film itself.
A Beautiful Day, directed by Marielle Heller (last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? and some television work) is a slightly bumpy, direct, and solidly/stolidly directed film whose emotional punches arise from its plot and especially from its two main actors. It’s loosely based on a real-life writer, Tom Junod, who wrote a piece on Mr. Rogers for Esquire Magazine back in 1998 and formed a life-long friendship with the television star. Junod becomes Lloyd Vogel here, as his film character’s issues with his dad became so dramatic in the screenplay that Junod asked for a name change. The writers also apparently added some of their own experiences as relatively new fathers to add color and depth to the character. So proceed understanding that that this is a “based on a true story” story.
The set-up is classic if not cliché. Cynical person/writer/whatever-you-want is forced to connect with someone/something that challenges their cynicism and they come away (spoiler alert) changed. Fortunately, the cynical one is played by Matthew Rhys (TV’s “The Americans”), an actor of range that brings an intensity always and a dark pessimism and sarcasm when he wants. Great casting choice, and he does a very good job, hitting every beat. A clear, straight performance like this was what is required when you’re pairing with someone perceived as a mystery.
Of course the focus of attention has largely been on America’s film Everyman Tom Hanks, another excellent casting choice. There may be someone else in the country that could bring Hanks’ All-American persona, acting chops, and absolute sincerity to this role, but I can’t think of one who could bring all three. His is the first name in the cast, but is essentially a lesser co-lead, and the producers are clearly offering him for nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Hanks is facing a giant acting challenge here, and does some of his best recent work in the role. Fred Rogers isn’t the easiest person to portray, either as a television performer doing his own singing, puppetry, and acting on his show, but also as a television producer, husband, father, and in this film’s presentation of him, a living legend known for his kindness and nearly pastoral ability to focus in on a person’s needs. It seems as if we can see Hanks working hard to be the character at times, but it could just as easily be Fred Rogers being as measured, calm, and thoughtful as he reportedly was. In either case, it works. Playing quiet and deeply caring (in both the emotional and active senses) is as great a challenge as doing Shakespeare well.
Apparently, there was a great deal of resistance from the Rogers camp to having a film about the man, but they were ultimately won over by this approach. He’s not a saint here (in terms of unattainability), and seems unnecessarily enigmatic at times, a fault that might be the screenplay’s as much as Hanks’. The script, however, doesn’t always fall into easy and obvious answers, and sometimes lets silence doing its talking; for instance, Vogel asks Rogers about his celebrity, making a sharp distinction (in his mind) between the person of Fred Rogers and the character the writer is assuming he plays on television. It would have been easy for an obvious slam-dunk explanation that there is no separation between the real-life Rogers and his TV persona, but the film wisely has Rogers absorb but not answer the question, an astute “omission” that lets the viewer fill in the gap themselves.
There is a playful element in the film that can come off as cute and imaginative, or twee and cloying. I’m somewhere in the middle on it. There is the obviously artificial TV set of “the neighborhood” and then there is the reality of the film. The film works to blend the two into one, which is perhaps a nod to the fact that both the person and character of Mr. Rogers are the same. But as the film moves into deeper dramatic territory, this effect is less powerful, even distracting. The film, like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, changes its aspect ratio, but not to differentiate time periods, but to distinguish the television work (1.33:1) from the rest of the film (the normal modern 1.85:1). That more subtle differentiation might have been enough.
This is as good a non-documentary film on Fred Rogers that we are likely to ever get. Hanks in the lead role. A solid performance from an actor playing a cynic who is finally convinced of Mr. Roger’s sincerity, and in fact allows FR to change his life. Plus the wise move of having Rogers being the secondary character rather than the first, the more to objectively view him, my dear. In spite of the rather traditional arc that the lead has to make, and the back-and-forth between performance and reality that doesn’t always work, this film is worth seeing for the two performances alone. Plus, hey, we could all use a little more Fred Rogers right now, yes?