Has anyone in Britain ever heard of Fred Rogers? He was an American children’s TV presenter whose folksy show for toddlers, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ran from 1968 to 2001 and made him a national treasure in the US, much admired for the way he encouraged children (and adults) to talk and think about their feelings. But unlike Sesame Street, it was not shown in the UK and so Rogers, played here with extraordinary Zen self-possession and force by Tom Hanks, may be unfamiliar. The equivalent would be showing Americans a biopic of Blue Peter’s John Noakes. (To cast this imaginary Bafta-winner, I suggest Jamie Bell as Noakes, Erin Doherty as Valerie Singleton, Daniel Radcliffe as Peter Purves and Meryl Streep as Biddy Baxter.
I had never heard of Rogers before this film, and some of it assumes a warm rush of recognition-nostalgia as it recreates and spoofs the toytown sets of the original show. But such is the power of Hanks’s crinkly-eyed impersonation, and the amount of reputation capital he himself brings to the film, that I quickly felt I did remember Rogers, and spent quite a lot of this hypnotically watchable film covertly swallowing down a lump in my throat.
It is inspired by a 1998 Esquire article about Rogers by Tom Junod, which was composed in a mock-homely naïf style paying homage to Rogers’s own manner, in which the journalist tells of how he came to mock and stayed to pray, literally – deeply moved by Rogers’s sweetness and idealism and by a prayer meeting that Rogers invited him to (“What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.”)
Matthew Rhys plays the hardbitten, cynical writer Lloyd Vogel (based on Junod, but with a fictional estranged dad figure, played by Chris Cooper, so that Rogers can heal their family wounds). Grumpy Vogel is told to interview the famous Fred Rogers for a brief article. All his derision is melted by Rogers’s enigmatically gentle calmness and the unselfconscious way he “introduces” Lloyd to the puppets he uses in the show and how he asks Lloyd to remember the first toy animal he had as a child. Hanks brilliantly, almost unnervingly recreates Rogers’s Thunderbirds-puppety way of moving and his sing-song voice, a variant on Forrest Gump.
The habit of irony might lead you to suspect that some awful revelation is on the way. It isn’t. Hanks brilliantly portrays Rogers’s innocence, at once elderly and childlike, his imperviousness to cynicism, his savant gift for sensing people’s unhappiness, together with a politician’s courtly way with interviewers that a certain kind of showbiz savvy has taught him. There’s a gripping restaurant scene in which Rogers asks Vogel to remain silent for one minute and reflect on the people who made him who he is. For a long, long moment Hanks looks into the camera with an unreadable expression, perhaps inviting us, the audience, to do the same. But you can see how Rogers has allowed himself to be a children’s puppet, knowingly and almost sacrificially becoming a silly, sentimental motheaten thing, a holy-innocent release for grownups’ feelings. It reminded me of the documentary Life, Animated, which told the story of how a father taught his autistic son to open up by speaking to him in the characters of Disney glove puppets.
Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue have adroitly set up the tightrope that Tom Hanks has to walk across, stretching it between irony and belief, and the result is a really entertaining and touching film. And the moment when the kids on the New York subway spot Mr Rogers and start singing his theme tune to him, with adult passengers and cops joining in … well, I reckon I must have got something in my eye.
• A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is released in the UK on 31 January.
Source: The Guardian