(Directed by Marielle Heller) (2019)
The Varnished Culture settled down with a choice wine to watch this, fully expecting to enjoy the contents of the bottle more than the film. Spared the viewing of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001) due to the tyranny of distance, we guessed this would be an uplifting panegyric of the famous kiddy presenter. Hence we feared a saccharine overdose as with The Sound of Music, more so when we perceived that the story, based on an article in Esquire, would centre around the the cynical, angry, world-weary, troubled, investigative journalist ‘Lloyd Vogel’ (Matthew Rhys), sent (querulously) to do a puff piece on the Play School good-guy, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) whose quiet integrity would redeem and bring the common touch of humanity and grace to the hard-bitten.
We have to report, however, that director Heller (though she looks alarmingly like President Biden’s press secretary), has done a remarkable thing with this production. Made with a number of surreal touches, based around the TV show’s set with all its fantasy elements, we were drawn-in to an otherwise predictable yarn. Heller gives us more pauses than a Pinter play; she feels little pressure to gas up the action, but she doesn’t allow torpor to lead to ennui. How she manages to meld a light touch with a sincere depth for feeling, we are not quite sure: certainly there is a lot of love for Rogers that shines through, and the cast are uniformly excellent. In particular, we liked Susan Kelechi Watson in a fairly thankless supporting role as Vogel’s wife, Maryann Plunkett as Mrs. Rogers, and a nice performance by Chris Cooper as Vogel’s estranged, damaged, deadbeat father. Cooper is a great natural actor, and his scenes are valuable here as a fulcrum and for grounding.
The revelation is Hanks in the (co-starring) role of Mr. Rogers. Hanks is not a great natural actor, and many of his roles succeed because he has a winning personality. But here Hanks does get inside the character and makes you believe in him, as he obviously does. It is a lovely bit of playing, spurning the artistic nightmare of an on-screen saint and instead catching the crackle and fizz of a good man of flesh and blood, tranquil belief, sensibility, flaws, and wisdom. We’d never go on a trip with Hanks (e.g. in a spacecraft, on a domestic flight, in a light FedEx plane, or on a container vessel) but we’d be happy to be his neighbour (down here, we spell it with a ‘u’).