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01 January 2020 04:58

It’s about how much we need a movie in which Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers right now.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Tom Hanks' Mr. Rogers warms soul

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't a movie about Mr. Rogers. Technically, it's about Tom Junod, a journalist who profiled Fred Rogers for Esquire in 1998. The resulting article, "Can You Say...Hero?" chronicles the litany of good deeds Junod witnesses Rogers perform throughout the day, often simple acts with seismic effects on the people he encounters. Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers, the minister who became a children's TV host then beacon of hope for a struggling society, and also the person who saves Lloyd. It's a movie about how much Lloyd (and Junod) needed Mr. Rogers at that time in his life.

It's about how much we need Tom Hanks right now. It's about how much we need a movie in which Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers right now. By virtue of the film's existence in this form—about Fred Rogers, at least in part, and starring Tom Hanks—it is inherently, too, a film about niceness and what that means to us today, if it means anything at all. But it's nice to think of him that way, even if we know we're being silly. They've all come up short, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner discovers in her recent New York Times magazine profile of Hanks, which cannily checks the same boxes Junod's profile of Rogers did.

In fact, a publicist at one point even relays concern that yet another story about how nice Tom Hanks is could be bad press, that something so boring and expected would hurt the film, or diminish the accomplishment of the excellent acting and transformation he pulls off. It's we who are so unfamiliar with basic decency today that we refuse to believe that a person like Hanks who casually exhibits it could possibly be a normal human being. Junod, or Lloyd in the film, is disoriented to the point of suspicion when he encounters Fred Rogers. This world where Mr. Rogers is as good as he's supposed to be? It's canny, then, that before A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood screened for critics and reporters in New York earlier this month, it was preceded by a message from Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife.

Until he sings the phrase in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I'd never heard or read Hanks say, "Won't you be my neighbor?" But it seems a version of what he's done in his career, and by living up to his mythical reputation. Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers is in some ways, then, a public service. 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' brings out the warm fuzzies with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers 'A Beautiful Day': Tom Hanks feels so right as Mr. Rogers giving a lesson in forgiveness Based on the real-life friendship between writer Tom Junod and the guy generations grew up watching, "Neighborhood" arrives a year after the excellent and uplifting documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" captured what made Mr. Rogers so special. Watch out for the small moments, though, because those are where Hanks really shines: During the filming of an episode, Lloyd peeks around to see Rogers playing his signature puppet Daniel Tiger, and there's an unmistakable truth and sweetness to Hanks' performance. The beloved star, who plays Fred Rogers in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," makes acting look too easy.

Tom Hanks isn't an unsung hero: At 63, he's been a beloved, well-paid movie star since the '80s, and has received five Oscar nominations and two wins. This awards season, he is nabbing raves for his portrayal of the iconic children's TV host Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." And, Hanks could get left out in the cold again. It's not unlike what happened to Cary Grant, who stayed at the top of studio wish lists for decades but was nominated for just two Academy Awards. Hanks taking on Fred Rogers plays into the perception that he is an uncommonly likeable, decent guy–if not the most creative or daring. He's campaigning for Supporting Actor for Mr. Rogers.

I asked a number of Oscar voters, campaigners, and other observers why it's been 18 years since Hanks received recognition from the Academy Actors branch. As an AIDS patient fighting for his rights, and a mentally challenged man with a big heart making his mark on decades of American history, Hanks scored the remarkable feat of winning "back to back Oscars," pointed out Roger Durling, director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Mr. Rogers is the right kind of performance for him, but it plays too suspiciously Red State-friendly, old-fashioned 'nice guy,' and bland. Both Hollywood charmers Stewart and Henry Fonda took darker turns as mature actors after World War II, signing up to play complicated, sometimes tortured characters in westerns such as Anthony Mann's "Winchester '73" (Stewart's agent Lew Wasserman scored him points instead of cash) and Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," respectively, and thrillers like Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and "The Wrong Man." This isn't something Hanks seems capable of doing — or maybe, he just doesn't want to. Hanks himself isn't comfortable playing villains, he recently admitted to The New York Times: "I recognized in myself a long time ago that I don't instill fear in anybody," he said. As good as Hanks is, you cannot say he's got a wide range. "Noisy actors like Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis and their ilk win Oscars," added IndieWire's Tom Brueggemann. Tom Hanks knows how to brighten everyone's day!