Come Back Mister Rogers:
Rating: Three and a half stars:
Fred Rogers, host of the beloved, long-running children’s TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is an American phenomenon, but as a man representing the force of goodness and patience against the harshness of modern life, his charm transcends time and place—plus he is played to perfection by Tom Hanks (nominated for an Academy Award) in Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. So popular was Mister Rogers (he died in 2003), with his gentle voice, and trademark cardigan, that a documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) about him was a surprise box-office hit.
In Heller’s film, journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys—a good actor lost under the brilliance of Hanks), perpetually sullen, with major Daddy issues, is assigned to profile Mister Rogers in a ‘Heroes’ special issue of Esquire Magazine (in 1998). Lloyd, a new father himself, who has just has a fist-fight with his own estranged dad (Chris Cooper), accepts the assignment with some reluctance.
He does not know what to expect when he lands up at the shoot of the TV show, and in the interview that follows, Fred Rogers digs out more information about him than he gives out about himself. Fred Rogers, as the film gradually reveals, is a genuine, people-loving optimist—his TV character is not a façade—who willingly becomes a repository of the painful stories of people who approach him. In another meeting with Lloyd, who is yet to be converted to the cult, he dodges the question about how he shoulders the burden of these confessions, and the journalist leaves in a huff.
Of course, one knows that the assigned 400-word piece become a 6000-word tribute (the piece titled Can You Say Hero by the real-life journalist Tom Junod, which forms the basis for the script of this film, is available online), which means that Rogers helps Lloyd to deal with his problems—mainly a reconciliation with his ailing father, and clearer communication with his harried wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).
Probably because the film was meant to be as cheerful as Mister Rogers’s show, it glosses over his troubled relationship with his own sons, and Joanne Rogers (Marianna Plunkett) makes just a brief appearance to correct Lloyd’s idea that her husband is a “living saint.”
However, in keeping with the Rogers philosophy of always looking at the bright side in a world that is much too dark, the film ends up as an ode to kindness; and perhaps, that is just what needed to be said. The most uplifting scene in the film takes place in a subway—yes, a celebrity like Mister Rogers takes the train—where a bunch of smiling fans spontaneously sing the title track of his show. His reaction might require a surreptitious sniff into a handkerchief!