Director Marielle Heller was not — and has never been — interested in making a Mister Rogers biopic. In light of her first two features, Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), both based on autobiographical stories, it’s more accurate to say that she’s interested in making movies about real people. What’s the difference, though? What separates a biopic from a movie about a real person? For Heller, the distinction lies in the way the story treats its subject — a portrait as opposed to a fluff piece. In the middle of the current “Rogers Renaissance,” it would have been so simple to give the man in the sweater a by-the-numbers biography. Picture it: Here’s the moment he first realized he wanted to make a television program; here’s the moment he created the characters from the Land of Make-Believe; here’s the moment he wrote the show’s theme song. One can easily envision the expected highlights strung together lazily and without much subtlety. Except that’s not what A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about. It’s not a fluff piece. It’s not centered on Mr. Rogers at all. It’s a portrait of a writer named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).
Granted, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starts pretty similarly to the way you’d envision a Mister Rogers biopic would. Opening with a hallmark pan across the miniature Land of Make-Believe, both sides of the screen cropped to the retro 4:3 aspect ratio, the establishing shot shimmers and fades as the camera zooms out from the glow of a blinking yellow traffic light. The camera trucks over to Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks), swinging the door open wide as he enters his home-away-from-home. Imitating the show’s star impeccably, Hanks goes through the motions of a typical episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – donning a cardigan, taking a seat, and slipping into a pair of sneakers, just as he’s done countless times before. He then pulls up a picture board to show his neighbor (the audience) photos of Mr. McFeely, Lord Friday the 13th, Lady Aberlin… and Lloyd Vogel, sporting a black eye. Much as she did with the animated flourishes in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller doesn’t let the film go on long before unleashing her unconventional style — this “Mister Rogers” segues from a fictional episode of his eponymous TV show to the film itself, the camera pulling back from the model Make-Believe and moving across a diorama-sized Pittsburg to the city of New York circa 1998.
Award-winning journalist Lloyd Vogel — a fictional character based on Tom Junod, whose article “Can You Say… ‘Hero’?” serves as the film’s foundation — has a reputation for being unpleasant, both in his personal life and in his writing. Carrying with him a contempt for others, Vogel’s attitude has alienated him from everyone except for his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and newly-born son Gavin. They see a very different side of him, one that illustrates that he has the capacity for compassion — but chooses not to embrace most of the time. When his editor assigns him a 400-word piece on Mister Rogers for a special issue on heroes, Vogel pushes back hard. If he has to do a lighthearted human-interest story, he’s going to do to it his way. What makes Mister Rogers tick? What’s underneath the façade? As an added bonus, this assignment provides Vogel with an excuse not to patch things up with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who has just re-appeared after nearly two decades. Arriving in Pennsylvania where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shoots, Vogel is almost immediately disarmed by Fred’s kindheartedness and genuine concern for others. If this persona isn’t even a persona at all, then what led Mister Rogers to live like this? To have such warmth and sympathy for total strangers? It’s the sort of question that set Vogel on a journey inward for the first time in his life.
What primarily takes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood beyond an Oscar-worthy performance vehicle for Hanks is Marielle Heller’s direction. With three features now under her belt, it’s obvious that she’s a master. Choosing to shoot her actors predominantly in close-ups — profiles, in other words — emphasizes the microscopic scale of this feature. Couple this with the decision to capture the establishing shots as Mr.RN-style models, and Heller’s dexterous handling of the material couldn’t be more evident. Fred Rogers is certainly much more famous than Minnie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s titular young artist, or Lee Israel, the forgotten biographer-turned-forger in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the television host’s fame doesn’t fundamentally change they way Heller addresses the contributions he made to Vogel’s life. As far as she’s concerned, Mister Rogers was created entirely for the sake of this film. The fact that he’s a real and recognizable figure changes nothing about the way he’s depicted.
Despite its poster and an extensive ad campaign, Vogel is unmistakably the character at the heart of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The reasoning behind this is right there in the text. Early on, when talking to Vogel on the phone, Mister Rogers explains that he treats the camera as one specific person whenever he’s shooting a new episode of his seminal public television program. In turn, that’s precisely how screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster frame their script — Mister Rogers focusing on one specific person named Lloyd Vogel. The former’s skepticism and cynicism keep the film from becoming a cringe-worthy adaptation of Mister Rogers’ Wikipedia page. For every iffy moment that could have come straight from less innovative film -- a certain subway scene and a dinner scene sequence in the film’s back half come to mind -- there are scenes of Vogel shaking his head and scoffing as he listens to Rogers.
This is essentially what makes the story work so well: Vogel is Statler & Waldorf to Fred’s Kermit the Frog, a rainstorm to Mister Rogers’ parade. It’s also what makes the journalist’s arc so satisfying. The basic cable version of this film would have seen Vogel finding the father he never had in Mister Rogers, the two bringing out the best in each other in a stirring lead-up to a warm, teary-eyed embrace between a literal father and son. Mercifully, Heller’s version has much more respect for the audience than to resort to such emotional manipulation. In the throes of what appears to be one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history, sentiments like “the world would be a better place if we all acted like Mister Rogers” aren’t wrong, but they don’t fix things, either. Lloyd Vogel’s journey in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood argues for a different proposition: Our minds would be a better place if we all regarded ourselves and the people who love us the way we regard our heroes.