Early on in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Andrea Vogel (Susan Kelechi Watson) learns her husband, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), is going to profile Fred Rogers for Esquire magazine, and she gives him a warning: “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
It’s a fear the audience shares as director Marielle Heller begins this loving biographical drama, when she first reveals a version of the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” opening, with its diorama of a suburban neighborhood. But then the door opens, and Tom Hanks enters as Mr. Rogers, one national treasure portraying another, and our fear dissipates.
With Hanks here, we think, everything will be all right — just as we thought when we saw Rogers, always reassuring us that he liked us just the way we are.
Rogers is really a supporting character in this story. The main character is Vogel, a cynical investigative journalist known for his hard-hitting exposés. (He’s a fictionalized version of Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers is the source material for this loose adaptation.) Vogel is so well known for tough questions, his editor (Christine Lahti) tells him, that every other celebrity Esquire is profiling for its “Heroes” issue refused to be interviewed by him — except Rogers.
Vogel flies from New York to Rogers’ studio in Pittsburgh — and one of the more delightful touches Heller applies is to create Rogers-esque dioramas of 1998 New York and other locations for its establishing shots. The studio at WQED is fairly typical, with the showrunner (Carmen Cusack) tearing her hair out because shooting is behind schedule. We see the reason why: Rogers has stopped everything to pay full attention to an ill boy visiting the set.
Rogers only has time for a short interview, but in those few minutes, he gives his undivided attention to Vogel. When he asks Vogel about the reporter’s busted nose, Vogel tries to lie — but discovers Rogers’ quiet but laser-like focus is a powerful truth serum. Vogel tells Rogers about how he got in a fight with his estranged dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), during the wedding reception for Vogel’s sister, Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard).
Thus, we learn what a mess Vogel is inside. He and Andrea are new parents, and Vogel is struggling with how to balance fatherhood with reporting trips. But Rogers, who agrees to meet with Vogel while the TV host is visiting New York, soon intuits that most of Vogel’s insecurities stem from the unresolved anger at Jerry, who left Vogel and his sick mom (played by Jessica Hecht in flashbacks) decades earlier.
Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and the screenwriting team of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (who rewrote “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”), start by re-creating a typical opening of Rogers’ TV show. This has the dual effect of quickly immersing us in Hanks’ tender portrayal — not so much an impersonation, though he accurately captures Rogers’ mannerisms, as a personification of the man’s goodness — and getting us to slow down to Rogers’ thoughtful pace. This takes time to pull off, but the dividend comes in an astonishing moment where Heller holds the camera on a silent Hanks-as-Rogers for a full minute.
Rhys, the Welsh-born actor who just finished his starring run on “The Americans,” manages the neat trick of being sympathetic while playing an unsympathetic character. He comes into his first encounter with Rogers with expectations — that it’s all an act, that Rogers is playing a character for kids, and he must have some secret vices — but gradually opens up to the possibility that some people are as good as they appear to be. Thus Vogel’s journey, and the movie itself, are wonderful and timely reminders to be like Fred Rogers and look for the better angels in whoever we meet.
‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
A jaded reporter is assigned to profile Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, in a tender drama about finding goodness in the world.
Where • Theaters everywhere
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 22
Rated • PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language.
Running time • 108 minutes