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Tom Hanks, Fred Rogers and the Burden of Being a Saint

In ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ the Oscar-winning actor plays the beloved children’s show host, bringing together two men who know full well how hard decency is

Of all the Marvel movies, my favorite moment occurs near the end of The Avengers during a climactic battle with a race of fearsome aliens. Captain America watches the mild-mannered Bruce Banner walk toward the danger and advises him, “Now might be a really good time for you to get angry,” hoping he’ll turn into the rampaging Hulk. But Banner just shoots him a look: “That’s my secret, Captain — I’m always angry.” 

In that moment, we’re given an entirely new perspective on Banner. Turns out, he’s not a nerdy wimp who occasionally loses his cool — he’s actually someone who’s suppressing his anger all the time, unbeknownst to his fellow superheroes. Banner’s line speaks to something deeply true about human beings: We really don’t know as much about the people around us as we think we do. We’re all hiding things, deciding what we want to show the world and what we don’t. And just because someone is a seemingly nice guy, that doesn’t mean darker emotions aren’t bubbling underneath.

The Fred Rogers we meet in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an abidingly kind and thoughtful man who’s nurturing and a good listener. No wonder that the jaded Esquire investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) believes he’s too good to be true, deciding to dig deeper in order to figure out what makes this guy tick. Lloyd is suspicious of such unfailing sweetness, and so he asks Fred’s wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) what it’s like to be married to a living saint. “I hate that term,” she tells Lloyd, “because it suggests that he’s reached a beatified state that no one else can possibly attain.” 

And that, right there, is the hidden message of this lovely, modest film. Perhaps there were stormier moods eating away at Fred Rogers all along — he just chose not to express them in order to be the warm, friendly person he presented to the rest of us. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood marvels at the discipline such a choice required. But it also laments the parts of Rogers we never got to see.

It’s appropriate that such a beacon of goodness should be played by Tom Hanks, who’s massively famous but also considered an upstanding, non-pretentious regular guy. In her recent profile of the Oscar-winning actor in The New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner couldn’t help but compare Hanks to Rogers, noting how they both seem to have zero dark side. But Hanks pushed back on that a little:

“[I realized I have] the ability to seduce a room, seduce a group of people, and that it started off when I was very young as a self-defense mechanism but then turned into a manipulative kind of thing, because I didn’t realize that I was as good at it as I was. And part of that is I am not malevolent. I’m not mysterious. You’re not going to get a huge amount of anger out of me or anything like that. I’m not coming in to dominate a room, but I am coming in to seduce it somehow.”

This same quality of benevolent seduction is something that we observe in Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which positions him as the enigmatic supporting character to Lloyd, the troubled protagonist who tries to get his story while also repairing his marriage and making peace with his dying son-of-a-bitch father. Occasionally when Lloyd and Fred are together, the reporter will grill the TV celebrity with probing questions, hoping to uncover something juicy. Rogers, his smiling face never changing, shrewdly turns it back on Lloyd, asking him about his difficult relationship with his dad. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t suggest that Rogers was a phony but, instead, argues that his desire to be loving to others was, sometimes, the only way he could deal with whatever might have been bothering him in his personal life. Rogers wasn’t being disingenuous in his compassionate curiosity, but maybe he wasn’t as transparent as he might have seemed.

We’re meant to see the film from Lloyd’s point-of-view, judging this Fred Rogers fellow warily. But what Hanks does so well is play the popular children’s host with a mask of bulletproof kindness. Hanks may believe he himself is not mysterious, but his Rogers is, and director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) points her camera at this gentle middle-aged man, wondering what could make that mask slip. At one point, Lloyd asks Rogers what the difference is between Fred Rogers the person and Mister Rogers the TV character. Rogers seems baffled by the question, and for the rest of the film, Lloyd and the audience are left to speculate whether his confusion was merely an act to maintain the illusion. Is Mister Rogers him? Or is he the person Fred wishes he were?

Fred Rogers has been on moviegoers’ minds a lot lately. In 2018, documentarian Morgan Neville released Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which celebrated the host’s quietly radical strategy of devoting an entire television show to telling children that they’re loved and valued — and insisting that it’s something everyone needs to hear, no matter what age. With both Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I was struck by the humble decency that someone like Fred Rogers represents, and how easily we take it for granted. Or worse, we dismiss it — assuming that he’s hiding something or that he’s deranged in some way. (No normal person could be so good, right?) Heller’s film asks us to think about Rogers’ humanness, and how he must have paid a price for all that unyielding tenderness he showed others.

It’s fascinating that Hanks plays Mister Rogers because, as a movie star, he has served a similar role as that of his character. Nobody can think of a time when Beloved American Icon Tom Hanks™ blew his top, punched a photographer or went on some racist tirade because he was off his meds. We accept Hanks’ upbeat normalcy as a given, assuming it requires no effort. And because of that, we expect him to make us mere mortals feel better. What’s revealing about the Brodesser-Akner piece is how much Hanks takes care of her, consoling her when she shares with him her parental anxieties. It’s a remarkable thing to read, because it says aloud something we’ve all thought: Tom Hanks is a great guy who has no faults or insecurities. We consider him a beloved fixture, and so we assign to him a kind of moral perfection that’s impossible to live up to — for him and for us. The way Hanks taps into Rogers’ inviting but also reserved geniality, you feel like he comprehends something about the pitfalls of being a public nice guy that none of us will ever experience. 

Like Bruce Banner, perhaps Fred Rogers was a superhero trying to suppress his anger and sorrow. Through his revered program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he modeled to others the goodness he wanted to see more of in the world. Lloyd never “cracks” Fred, but the two men develop an understanding: No one is a saint, not even Fred Rogers, yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying to be better than we are. I won’t spoil the movie’s ending, but it’s subtle and also upsetting. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about how Fred Rogers helps an Esquire reporter become a good person. But when there are no people around to help, who was Fred Rogers? Who got to be Mister Rogers for him?

Here are three other takeaways from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

#1. Of course you want to hear some ‘Mister Rogers’ remixes.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, several years ago the folks over at PBS Digital Studios decided to introduce what they called the “Mister Rogers Remix Challenge,” which featured different stems from the show so that musicians and DJs could create their own remixes. Sadly, the only two that still exist are by John D. Boswell, a composer and filmmaker who goes by the name Melodysheep. But they’re really great.

The first, from 2012, is called “Garden of Your Mind,” and it’s a nice chill-out track that auto-tunes Rogers’ voice in a hypnotic way. Who knew that him saying “Let’s give the fish some food” could be such a potent hook? 

A year later, Melodysheep struck again, giving us “Sing Together,” which is a little jazzier. As with “Garden of Your Mind,” there’s nothing satiric or sarcastic about this remix: Indeed, in their own way, these tracks are as comforting as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself.

Fast Company spoke to Boswell in 2012, discovering that PBS had reached out to him to do these remixes after being fans of an earlier remix he’d done with footage of Carl Sagan. Boswell loved Fred Rogers, so he agreed to give Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood a similar treatment. As Boswell said, “[Remixes are] a strange art form. … You’re so limited by what you can do that is fun, but at the same time, stays true to the message.” There’s a real innocence to “Garden of Your Mind” and “Sing Together” that’s entirely in keeping with the childlike wonder of the show. Fred Rogers never worried about being cutting-edge, but these remixes do a decent job of keeping him up-to-date musically.

#2. Here’s the Marielle Heller film you need to see next.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the third feature from Marielle Heller, who’s one of the most promising filmmakers working right now. (She turned 40 last month.) Her 2018 drama, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, earned three Oscar nominations, and her latest will probably receive awards attention as well. Yet her 2015 debut isn’t as well-known. I still, however, think it’s her best film.

Based on a book by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl tells the story of a precocious 15-year-old, Minnie (Bel Powley), who is more than ready to start having sex. However, her choice of mates proves to be, well, problematic: She begins a relationship with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mom’s (Kristen Wiig) scuzzy boyfriend. 

Told from Minnie’s perspective — her voiceover pervades the film — The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls off an impressive balancing act. Heller gets you to understand just how wrong it is that Monroe is having sex with an underage girl while, simultaneously, making it abundantly clear why Minnie thinks it’s love true love. Plenty of movies can be described as coming-of-age, but this one is different, luxuriating in the excited hormones of youth while also presenting us with a character who’s simply too young to know what an abuser Monroe really is.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl got good reviews, but it never really took off in the indie world. I have a feeling if it came out now, in the midst of the #MeToo age, the film would have inspired a lot more conversation. Everybody in the movie is terrific, but Skarsgård is especially good as this lecherous creep who, if anything, is less mature than the teenager he’s bedding.

#3. This is my favorite passage from Tom Junod’s Esquire profile of Fred Rogers.

As you probably know, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a fictionalized account of how a cynical journalist, Lloyd, learns kindness by interviewing Fred Rogers. In real life, that journalist was Tom Junod, and his celebrated 1998 Esquire cover story was entitled “Can You Say… Hero?” 

Everybody probably has their own favorite section of the piece — some of which are depicted in the movie — but this is the one I really love. It’s near the end, and I think it captures something elemental about Rogers: 

Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life — maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us — I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”

That’s a very sappy idea — heaven is the friends we make along the way — but it’s not a bad one. In other words, it’s a very, very Fred Rogers idea. And it’s conveyed quite well in one of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s finest scenes. You could do worse than investing some time in this movie.