My connection to Mr. Fred Rogers is sealed by a small indented scar on my forehead but I digress … more about that later … As an introverted imaginative child, born in the 1960s, I was shaped by PBS and remain addicted to this day. When the opening bars of the jovial theme sounded its melodious refrain and the aerial view of The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, awash in primary colors opened into the expanse of the screen, I noticed myself taking in a breath. It was like catching a glimpse of an old friend coming out of an airport gate after a long awaited reunion. Yet, I wondered how anyone who didn’t share the same childhood nostalgia might enjoy the sweet premise of the film.
First of all, hasn’t everything been said about kindness as an antidote to a toxic world? Cine’ has already screened a very successful run of the highly acclaimed documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” which is filled with archival footage and personal interviews.
The story is based on the real life friendship between Fred Roger’s and ESQUIRE Magazine writer Tom Junod, renamed Lloyd Vogel in the film. Formula: Cynical investigative journalist reluctantly takes assignment to write a profile of “the Hokey Kid Show Guy” only to soften and learn the error of his ways?
How could Tom Hanks, “America’s Everyman Actor” embody the beatific presence of Mr. Rogers without coming off as an SNL parody? What sense would this film make, set in the late 1980s and shown during the abrasive, irreverent Trump era?
Turns out that my concerns were countered by fine performances by each of the actors. Although, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the emotional range of actor, Matthew Rhys who plays journalist, Lloyd Vogel, the steadfast affection of Lloyd’s wife Andrea was a refreshing surprise. Her tenderness reaches beyond her familial role in the film. Actress, Susan Kelchi Watson is probably best known in a very different role as wife in the TV series “This Is Us.” In my opinion, the most engaging performance came from Jerry Vogel the wayward father (actor, Chris Cooper). Although, he plays a weary rogue, his vulnerability is palpable.
The aspect of the film that was most enjoyable was all the ways the viewer gets behind the surface of things: through doorways, alleyways, windows, and facades. Educational programming creates these real and imagined intimate spaces where adults rarely venture.
The glaring weakness of the film was the way it “dabbled in diversity” by placing it in the periphery of the narrative. As an African American viewer, I acknowledge the heartwarming scene on a subway train that is featured in film trailers. Viewers will also recognize cameo appearances by two pop culture icons who debuted in the 1980s but the moments seem obligatory.
The Vogel interracial marriage is really the missed script opportunity that goes directly to the journalist/husband’s underlying angst about his father’s approval. Andrea Vogel makes a passing mention of an incident she experiences while travelling home at night with their child. Each time their infant son Wyatt’s little brown face fills the screen, it is simply an unspoken topic of discussion. Each time he and Grandpa Jerry shared a scene, I recoiled a bit anticipating what Grandpa Jerry would call his only grandchild.
In context, prior to Mr. Rogers’ actual debut, it is startling to recall that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated Nov. 22, 1963 (my first birthday). Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood began airing in 1968, the same year of Dr. Martin Luther Kings, Jr. assassination. I vividly recall bumping my forehead one day as I edged closer to the console-styled family television. I edged closer because I felt as if Mr. Rogers was speaking directly to me. I found sanctuary in his soothing voice and his well worn cast of puppets in the midst of this violent upheaval.
Decades later, Tom Hanks portrayal of Mr. Roger’s did not disappoint. His performance held solidly from the time he turned the doorknob to step across the TV threshold until the final scene when he sat down to play a passage on the piano. Expressive outburst or a cryptic warning, either way it rang true.