Over here in jolly ‘fish n chips and tea’ UK, the name Mr Rogers is usually met with confused looks and blank stares; meanwhile in the ‘cheeseburgers and shopping malls’ US of A, Mr Rogers is a beloved household name, credited with building many a childhood with his sage advice on life.
He is a very uniquely American figure, even if his message may seem universal, his celebrity is not, while I am personally familiar with his name, mostly through consumption of America media, I couldn’t tell you a single memorable moment from his long and storied career.
My first real introduction to Mr Rogers was the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour, a film whose title I have frequently got confused with this one, given their close proximity to one another literally, and their similar promotional art.
I found the documentary to be an engrossing tale about a refreshingly decent man; someone who valued people above all, and generally seemed a class above anyone else on TV at that time, a feeling that was reaffirmed in this film.
Rather than being a biopic of Fred Rogers, this film instead focuses on his friendship with journalist Lloyd Vogel (based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod). It isn’t so much a story of Rogers’ life, but the impact he has on Vogel’s. A man who makes his name with damning exposés, tasked with profiling a man who seems almost saintly.
It frames Lloyd’s situation as a topic Mr Rogers covers on his show, in the style he would present it to a young audience; taking a difficult topic and having enough respect for the viewer to understand what you’re telling them. A unique gift in children’s television that seems almost impossible to master.
It goes one further with this premise though by presenting certain areas of the film as if it were an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, starting the film with Rogers’ usual show opening routine, and presenting the locations as places in his model town. This is a great use of the films source material, and feels almost comparable to what we see of his show, it doesn’t come across as patronising, if anything it’s just a further show of Rogers’ personality and unique charm.
In between these sections inspired by the shows structure is the usual dramatic retelling set up. Lloyd is a jaded journalist with parental issues, his reaction to Rogers and his increasing interest is at first hostile and distant; he doesn’t feel like this is the television icons true personality, rather it is just an extension of his on-screen character.
The building of their bond has a charm about it that is predictable, yet still engaging. You want to find that Mr Rogers is just like who he says he is, in the back of your mind, you know that will be the case anyway, so it isn’t a negative predictability greeted with a weary sigh and roll of the eyes, but a welcome one, greeted with a hearty chuckle and beaming smile.
Everything else beside the central relationship does tend to fall by the wayside admittedly. For all the characterisation Lloyd gets, his wife and extended family are left disappointingly bland, and not much is done with Lloyd’s infant son story-wise either, it feels like that could have been a way to tie even more into Rogers’ life-view, but it is left as a mostly side-distraction than key plot point.
I’d say the films main victories lie with its innate charm and performances. Its infrequent returns to referencing the show that inspired it is an interesting quirk, one that I don’t think I’ve really seen before, it feels like we’re diving into the very fabric of the show, as well as its star.
It is a film completely stolen by a single performance however, that of Tom Hanks as the eponymous character. He is without doubt one of cinemas greatest actors, and he is perfectly suited to this part. Rogers unique gentleness is captured perfectly in an understated, softly spoken Hanks portrayal, that will make you want to reach through the screen and give him a big hug. He’s not just simply a generous man, he has his problems, but it’s how he confronts them that sets him apart. A moment of dialogue where he opens up about his difficulties with fame and family life bring this brilliantly into the fold, it’s a focused, intelligent portrayal that has rightly been lauded by critics, and nominated for an Oscar.
In a world as uneasy as ours, it feels like we all need a little bit of what Fred Rogers taught. Love and compassion are captured perfectly here by a creator with a vision to capture this unique man, a film that perfectly encapsulates its subject matter, it leaves you with a warm feeling, a feeling of gladness that someone like Fred existed, the film leaves you feeling happy with its positive message, delivered in such a way that doesn’t feel too forced or preachy, much like the man himself.
Even though it may struggle with balancing some supporting characters, this is a film with joy in its heart, a rare example of a real-life tale being perfectly weighted to its subject material, it truly warmed my heart and left me with a smile. A film that was made with love, and should be cherished.