Seeing this movie created ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

One of the iconic sweaters worn on air by Fred Rogers hangs in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The staff at the local theater could not be certain how long it would remain on the big screen in Perry, but they knew that the movie in question would be shown through Wednesdsay.

The film? Marielle Heller’s somewhat reverential “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” based upon the Esquire magazine cover story, “Can You Say . . . Hero?” originally published in the November 1988 issue.

The subject, of course, was Fred Rogers, the Mr. Rogers of children television fame. The writer, Tom Junod, is named Lloyd Vogel in the film, with Matthew Rhys in the role. Tom Hanks plays Rogers, whom Vogel is sent to interview for a 400-word “puff piece” as part of an Esquire series on cultural icons. The result is a 10,000-word expose.

The film is not so much a documentary on Rogers or his career but about the impact the beloved television personage and ordained Presbyterian minister had on Vogel, who was struggling with emotional scars left over by the death of his mother and her abandonment by his father, Jerry, with Chris Cooper acting the part.

The movie is, like Rogers (1928-2003), slow paced but compassionate. A particular nicety is Heller’s choice to use the scale-model sets of the Neighborhood to reveal both Pittsburgh, where Rogers filmed his show (1968-2001) at WQED, and New York, where Junod lives with his wife, Andrea, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, and their infant son, Gavin.

There are few surprises in the plot, which develops in a manner easily foreseen.

The joy of the film is that such predictability hardly matters for fans and admirers of Rogers, whose impact on Vogel was,as the author wrote, “life-changing in many ways, all of them for the good.”

Hanks fills the iconic role of Rogers well, looking enough like the man and speaking in his inimitable idiom and cadence that those who grew up with Trolley taking them on a whistle-bound trek to the Kingdom of Make Believe will instantly recognize him.

The movie does not lionize Rogers, whose wife, Joanne, played by Maryann Plunkett, tells Vogel that “he is not a saint. That would be asking him to do the impossible.” She insists her husband experiences anger and depression like other people but that what set him about was how he dealt with those feelings, which makes the central thread of the film.

I rarely see movies in the theater and attend no more than three or four, at the very most, in a given year. “Neighborhood” was one I was passionately looking forward to seeing, and it did not disappoint.

Admittedly, I carried some bias entering the theater because from boyhood I have admired Rogers. WILL-TV 12, the University of Illinois PBS station that was one of four channels that the television of my youth received, began in 1969 to air Sesame Street from 3-4 p.m., immediately followed by Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For a 3-year-old, it was pure joy, and I have no doubt my mother approved of her daily 90-minute educational babysitter.

Rogers once said that “love or the lack of it” was the most important factor in each person’s development. It is a quote I have come to understand and appreciate more and more as the years pass.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the kind of movie the viewer might be more comfortable watching in a comfy chair, with a mug of hot chocolate or a icy pop in hand. It does not shy away from difficult issues, but the quiet, deliberate pace and the personage of Rogers is soothing and comfortable, like that old blanket or favorite stuffed animal we all once had — something Rogers discusses with Vogel.

I would strongly recommend seeing this film and for those who grew up loving Rogers, it is a must-see.

Also worth the time is Junod’s original piece.

A visit to see this movie will, in my opinion, make it a beautiful day in your neighborhood.

With a joyous whistle, the Neighborhood Trolley would whisk viewers to the Kingdom of Make Believe.


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