DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1998, the journalist Tom Junod wrote a celebrated Esquire Magazine profile of Fred Rogers, the beloved children's television personality better known as Mister Rogers. The story of their encounter and subsequent friendship is the inspiration for the new film called "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. It's directed by Marielle Heller, the filmmaker behind last year's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I must confess that I approached "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" with some trepidation? After last year's wonderful documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" I wasn't sure we needed the Hollywood version of Mister Rogers, especially a Mister Rogers played by Tom Hanks. Something about the idea of casting one of our most beloved movie actors as one of our most beloved TV personalities just sounded a little too sanctimonious on paper.
I shouldn't have worried. "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" may be an unapologetically therapeutic story about a man who has a life-changing encounter with Mister Rogers. But the director, Marielle Heller, shrewdly anticipates your every eye roll. And she and the screenwriters, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, are deft at using humor and even a little snark to disarm our worst expectations.
They even encourage us to identify on some level with the protagonist, Lloyd Vogel, a cynical New York based journalist played by the excellent Welsh actor Matthew Rhys. Lloyd has been tasked with profiling Fred Rogers for Esquire, an unusual assignment that he approaches with great reluctance and even resentment. It's his natural instinct to try and take Mister Rogers down a few notches to shine the cold, hard light of reality on a man who surely couldn't be as saintly as he appears.
Lloyd has his reasons for distrusting paternal authority figures. He's long been estranged from his father, Jerry, who abandoned him years ago when he was just a child. Lloyd's ongoing anger toward his dad threatens to drive a wedge between him and his loving wife, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, with whom he has a newborn son of his own.
Meanwhile, Jerry, played by an aggressively remorseful Chris Cooper, wants to be part of Lloyd's life again. But Lloyd isn't having any of it, and even gets in a fistfight with his dad at a family wedding. And so when Lloyd goes to interview Mister Rogers at his Pittsburgh TV studio, he shows up with an ugly gash on his face, which he chalks up to a baseball injury.
It takes some time for the interview to get started. There's a child visiting the set, and Mister Rogers - or Fred, as everyone calls him - is not one to be rushed. Soon he will turn his unhurried, undivided attention onto Lloyd, who finds their interview both fascinating and infuriating. Whenever Lloyd asks a pointed question, Fred will often sidestep it and ask an equally pointed question in return.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD")
MATTHEW RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) This piece will be for an issue about heroes. Do you consider yourself a hero?
TOM HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) I don't think of myself as a hero, no, not at all.
RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) What about Mister Rogers, is he a hero?
HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) I don't understand the question.
RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) Well, there's you, Fred, and then there's the character you play, Mister Rogers.
HANKS: (As Mister Rogers) You said it was a play at the plate. Is that what happened to you?
RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) I'm here to interview you, Mister Rogers.
HANKS: (As Mister Rogers) Well, that is what we're doing, isn't it?
CHANG: Lloyd is a stand-in for the journalist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers for Esquire in 1998. The two remained close until Roger's death in 2003. While Junod has said that the movie captures the essence of their friendship, much of the story, including the specifics of the father-son conflict, was invented for the script.
This fabrication matters less than you might think. Lloyd may be a fictional construct, but the movie wholly empathizes with his pain and validates his emotions. With enormous patience and understanding, Fred gets Lloyd to talk about his long-buried feelings and nudges him in the direction of forgiveness.
This may sound unbearably sentimental, but I never felt manipulated by "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," mainly because the movie is so transparent about what it's doing. It seems to be saying, here was an extraordinary human being who simply by offering the gift of his time and attention couldn't help but profoundly affect the lives of those he met.
Like last year's "Can You Ever Forgive Me," "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" confirms the remarkable talent of Marielle Heller, a director who can cast a spell with the lightest of touches. She draws us in by evoking the no-frills visual grammar of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" itself. She shoots the movie in a fuzzy, washed-out palette that captures the look of old public television. And she uses the show's famous miniature neighborhood in visual transitions between the scenes.
But her strongest element is Hanks. We know we're in good hands from the opening scene when the actor nails the famous introduction to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" - the song, the red cardigan, the change of shoes. But his performance goes beyond mimicry. With every twinkling smile and every calmly drawn-out sentence, you can feel Hanks slowing down the movie's rhythms and encouraging us to pay close attention.
I don't say this lightly, but I walked into this movie feeling skeptical at best, and left feeling as if I'd had an encounter with Mister Rogers himself - not in the flesh, of course, but in the all-too-rare sense of having been told a story that embodies the force of his humanity and the tenderness of his spirit.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, college in a maximum security prison. We'll talk with filmmaker Lynn Novick and two graduates of the College Behind Bars Program. The PBS documentary series "College Behind Bars" tells the moving story of prisoners taking rigorous courses and earning degrees while serving their time. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.