A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a good movie.
Let's get that out of the way right off the bat, before there's any more confusion. It may even be great. It's sweet and charming, and it plays with the medium in clever and interesting ways. It tells a story that's worth being told, and if you have it in you to have your heart warmed, you should go see it. You won't be disappointed. But last week I wrote an article rebutting some popular press items that seemed to be suggesting that Tom Hanks was just as nice as Fred Rogers. I took issue with the idea, and dug into my deep and abiding love of Mister Rogers to make my case.
A lot of people disagreed. They were understandably defensive, because Tom Hanks is a famously lovely man. So now that I've seen the movie, I feel an obligation to follow up with those people just to say: You were wrong. Tom Hanks still isn't good enough to play Mister Rogers.
I get it, but you're still wrong
As it's been pointed out to me, an actor's virtues do not need to align with the virtues of the person that actor portrays. The real Erin Brockovich fought as a tireless advocate for the men, women, and children made ill by corporate greed and negligence, while Julia Roberts, who played her in one of her breakout roles, is simply a talented actress. For that part, talent was enough. The reason I fixated on this issue for Hanks' performance as Fred Rogers, is that, unlike Brockovich, Fred Rogers was an icon of my childhood, and there has been a concerted effort to sell Hanks as just as nice—just as good—as Mister Rogers himself. It seems to be the main reason he was chosen for the role in the first place, which is fundamentally misguided, and also happens to be incorrect. It's misguided in that Hanks' portrayal lacked other important merits; and it's incorrect, because there is likely no actor on Earth as nice as Fred Rogers.
It may seem uncalled for to disparage Tom Hanks' merits. He's a great actor, and he clearly put a lot of work into getting the performance right. He manages to capture much of Mister Rogers' warmth and presence, which is a tall order and undoubtedly more than most actors could do in his place. But the real Fred Rogers was an incomparable icon of warmth and presence. That is the sum of who he was as a human and as a performer—kindness personified. There was nothing in his bearing, his manner, or the content of his slow and meandering show that could ever distract from that core of kindness. He was thin and awkward, with sloping shoulders and an endearingly goofy smile. He was, in so many ways, a thoroughly ordinary man. It would be accurate to say that everything about him screamed "unassuming," except that nothing about Mister Rogers ever screamed at all.
Tom Hanks, on the other hand, is not unassuming. Acting as a profession does not lend itself to unassuming figures, but some unknown and underfed actor could possibly have pulled it off. As for Hanks, he is an icon all his own: a star of action, comedy, and drama. He is too confident, has too much ease in his bearing, and too much sturdiness in his build to truly be unassuming. Mister Rogers weighed 143 pounds throughout his adult life. When Tom Hanks lost 50 pounds for Castaway, he still clocked in at 170. He does seems like someone with a natural aptitude for kindness, but also like someone who never had much of a reason to be any other way. Fred Rogers was bullied and sickly as a child. He had a natural aptitude for kindness, but he also had his share of sadness and anger. And because of that sadness and anger—not despite it—he chose to make kindness the sole vocation of his life.
Nonetheless, it wouldn't be surprising if Tom Hanks were nominated for an Oscar for his performance. There isn't another big-name actor who could have done it better—though Hanks' son could have given it a shot—and the movie is truly lovely. It's framed as an episode of Mister Rogers on the topic of forgiveness—complete with grainy footage and scale-model establishing shots.
Matthew Rhys beside a scale model of PittsburghHollywood Reporter
Lloyd Vogel is the real journalist who learned forgiveness through the events depicted in the film, and you can see him describe his relationship with Fred Rogers in the delightfully sweet and tear-jerking documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor. But in this film he's played affectingly by Matthew Rhys, and his story becomes a parable told for our benefit. Hanks speaks directly to the audience, explains to us what forgiveness means, looks us in the eye as his charming self, and asks us to think of the people who "loved [us] into being." He doesn't quite inhabit Mister Rogers, but the movie lets us in on a secret: We can still like him just the way he is.
As Joanne Rogers tells Lloyd Vogel, Fred was not a saint. If he was, then the model he set would be unattainable. He was a man–a great man, but one whose greatness is within reach if we simply devote ourselves, as he did, to kindness. He was a man who taught us that, even when things are not okay, we are okay—precious even—just as we are.
WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? - Official Trailer [HD] - In Select Theaters June 8 www.youtube.com
So please go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, because it's worth your time. But when you get a chance and you need a good cry, or maybe some inspiration to lead a better life, follow it up with Won't You Be My Neighbor.