It was just over a year ago that we got a documentary about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with the title “Won’t You be My Neighbor“, and it was very satisfying. So that begs the question, why are we getting another film on the subject? The answer is complex. While this film has the trimmings of a biopic, the subject of the biography is less Fred Rogers than investigative reporter Tom Junod who is called Lloyd Vogel in this film. His fictionalized story is really about the impact of meeting Mister Rogers had on his life. When a movie is “inspired by” real events, there is probably a great deal of difference between the story and reality. I am sure this is the case here, except when it comes to the sincerity of how Fred Rogers moves us.
The film is told in a truly original and interesting style. The writers, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and the director, Marielle Heller, have chosen to make the film as if it is an extended episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”. The main character is introduced by Mister Rogers on his program as a friend. He then tells the story of Lloyd as one of the direct, simple and profound stories that you could find on the show. Ultimately it gets embellished with elements of the show including songs, puppets and the neighborhood made of miniature houses and buildings. This is a full blown drama about a man’s life, but it is being told by another man who better understands the issues being faced than the protagonist does.
Tom Hanks embodies Fred Rogers in a pitch perfect rendition of his voice and demeanor. When moments come up that suggest from the magazine writer’s point of view that something is off about Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks calm, grounded and moral persona reclaims the ground and makes us a little embarrassed for even thinking as the writer did for a minute. This is a reflection of the original article that Tom Junod wrote for Esquire “Can You Say…”Hero?“.” We writes in Mister Rogers voice and relates incidents that reveal who Mister Rogers is, in the same soft manner as the subject himself. That this is successfully transferred to a film is a admirable achievement and the work of the director, writers and Tom Hanks is responsible for this.
A number of plot points will seem a little conventional to seasoned movie goers. There is estrangement between father and son. A parallel story concerns the relationship a new father is building with his son. Death inevitably creeps into the narrative as a dramatic tool to pull us in to the world the actors are portraying, but it all works very well. Chris Cooper is an actor I am always glad to see in a movie and he shows up here as a cliche, but finishes as a crescendo. Matthew Rhys plays the writer/son/bio-subject and he is also fine in the film. There are many moments of drama that he has to carry, but there are moments of levity that he manages to make real as well.
I really liked this film. I can’t say that it is one of the best of the year, there is a lot about it that is strange and may be a little too abstract. If you can buy in to the premise, it will take you to some emotional points that are worth experiencing. but without the element of Fred Rogers, they would come across as cliches. I felt better as a human being after seeing it, and I’m not sure anyone needs a better recommendation for seeing it than that.