Heartland 2019: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Processing anger and negative emotion is hard. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) has plenty of experience trying and failing miserably. An investigative journalist for Esquire circa 1998, Vogel is used to channeling his barely repressed anger into his hard-hitting exposés that leave the subjects reeling. So he’s a little miffed when his editor assigns him a puff piece for an article on heroes, his subject being Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Rogers is already the childhood hero to plenty of adults who grew up watching him, considered by many to be the closest thing to an American Saint. A great subject for Vogel, who can rarely get anyone to agree to a sit-down with him anymore due to the heat from his hot takes.

Mr. Rogers answers the call immediately.

Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) crafts A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with a keen understanding of Fred Rogers’ impact on his audience, and works overtime to convey his philosophy in action rather than getting bogged down with rote details and / or biopic melodrama. She understands Rogers was a man defined by a fearless devotion to the hard work of compassionate listening. Vogel, in all his rage and cynicism, is her way of exploring what Rogers’ ideas mean. Of showing, not telling. Through the two characters’ relationship, Heller explores a number of themes, humanizing both. Unlike most biopics, humanizing Rogers only makes his attitudes even more meaningful.

When Vogel first meets Rogers, he doubts his authenticity — suspicious of his demeanor and behavior. Vogel has a problem with father figures, which is established pretty quickly when he confronts his alcoholic, long-absent dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), at wedding #3 for his sister Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard). It doesn’t go well. He enters into his interview with Rogers cynical and ready to pounce. Rogers sees through him, and the two start a bond that becomes less and less grounded in a physical reality per se. Heller knows the key to A Beautiful Day isn’t to convince the audience that this is based on a true story of two men with a connection, but rather to capture the affect Rogers has on an individual who is deeply hurting.

It feels like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, both in form (some great production quirks I can’t spoil here) and its deep-hearted sincerity. Maybe call it Episode 1766, “Fathers and Sons?” Like the old show, it may come across as cornball to some, but why wouldn’t it? Don’t break what isn’t broken. Don’t snuff out warmth when you can so rarely feel it.

“Don’t ruin my childhood,” Vogel’s wife, Andra (Susan Kelechi Watson), tells him before he leaves for Pittsburgh to interview Rogers. She speaks for the audience. Rogers’ legacy has only grown over the course of the past decade-and-a-half since his passing, as the world has grown seemingly darker and our anxieties are endlessly stoked. Last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? did a tremendous job of explaining who Rogers was and the ethos that makes him a very special public figure. His tireless, conscious work to care about and be there for others, his candor about the amount of difficult work that goes into managing negative emotion, and his emphasis on forgiving yourself, accepting yourself for who you are, and accepting others for who they are resonate eternally. Rogers’ power as an icon grows because his ideas are simple, honest and thoughtful. Most importantly, he never thought himself to be perfect. He was open about his personal failings. For Fred Rogers, being Mister Rogers was the work of a lifetime.

Vogel’s issues are the work of a lifetime, too, and not just his own. They’re compounded by his new role as a father to a newborn son. Fatherhood requires him to change his restless-reporter lifestyle, to make sacrifices and to choose what is important to him. Being the son of a deadbeat, a dad who failed him, compounds the pressure. He’s so twisted up inside that he has trouble understanding himself. How can he reckon with his son? Rogers recognizes Vogel’s feelings and helps him work through them, but not as an all-wise shaman. Although his two sons are grown at the time of this story, he never pretends his fathering was flawless. One memorable moment finds an angry Vogel confronting Rogers with the question of whether it was difficult for Rogers’ sons to have him as a father. Rogers thinks for a moment and then admits it was, that one of his sons would not even mention their connection while the other had problems through which they worked.

The fatherhood triangle of Vogel, Jerry and Rogers allows Heller to unpack the expectations men place on themselves when they become fathers — what they consider their roles in life to be after their world has permanently changed. How can men constructively let go of themselves, and their resentments and anger and issues, to rise to the occasion? How do they define having done a good job? Vogel’s resentment towards Jerry fuels his rage and pain, and Rogers does not absolve him of it: He only points the way towards confronting it honestly, in a way that lets Vogel move forward as a father, husband and writer.

Facing fatherhood, particularly with a son, also means reflecting on how you engage with masculinity. Figuring out how to teach your son to survive amongst other men. The rituals and gender-coded ideas about what makes a man fluctuate over time (with clear commonalities), which means father-son conflict is inevitable. A Beautiful Day questions these elements of cross-generational masculinity with relation to Rogers, whose career is littered with impersonations that poke fun at his soft-spoken demeanor and eccentric behavior, usually leaning in on the idea that he’s an effeminate sissy. Writers Noah Harpster and Micha Fitzerman-Blue even throw in references to the classic urban legend that he was a trained Navy SEAL, a stupid myth created to give Rogers a hard edge that let uncomfortable men enjoy him. Cultural discomfort with the idea that a man could become a role model for honest emotional communication persists today.

Hanks does incredible work in A Beautiful Day, delivering a complex performance that never feels like a pastiche. He goes small when other performers might have gone big, and his admiration for the subject is deeply felt. Hiring Hanks speaks to the how the whole production was determined to protect the memory of Rogers, given the actor’s well-known reputation for kindness. It would be unfair not to spotlight Rhys’ performance as Vogel, either, as he is the true emotional center of the story. He elegantly portrays Vogel’s dynamic understanding of himself and the world, change that does not come easily or all at once. His performance is nuanced, empathetic and just as captivating as the one Hanks offers.

Although many stories use father issues as a basic storytelling template for easy dramatic tension (I’m looking at you, the entirety of the Marvel Universe), A Beautiful Day really unpacks its questions of fatherhood and responsibility in emphasizing the importance of emotional awareness. When you look down into the eyes of a baby whose brain is processing everything all at once, who isn’t anywhere close to understanding these ideas conceptually … where do you begin? Can you even choose what lessons you teach? What did your father teach you — and if he was a sack of shit, what lessons did that teach you? What happens if you fail, despite your best efforts? You do the best you can.

Depicting Rogers as a complex father himself rather than as a holy, perfect alternate papa for Vogel creates a compelling trifecta of paternal experiences full of pain, joy, failure, triumph and, most of all, humanity. It’s a lovely, best-case scenario for a film about Fred Rogers, right up to its sweet and understated final scene. The film is a lesson in empathy and listening as only Mister Rogers can teach — a real trip to the Neighborhood.


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Administrator of Midwest Film Journal. Previously a staff writer for TheFilmYap.com, Evan has been writing film criticism in the Indianapolis area for over half a decade. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He also reviews Oreos.


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