A fault that many of us have is taking things for granted. As soon as the power goes out or a loved one isn't near, we come to understand how dependent we are on things and people. Our appreciation sometimes comes after the fact. Obviously, Tom Hanks is not a vital part to any viewer's everyday life, but for those who appreciate fine screen acting, I think that he's become one of those guys we take for granted. It's been 18 years since he's been nominated for an Oscar, despite doing exceptional work as the lead in Captain Phillips and Sully and providing solid support in Catch Me If You Can and Saving Mr. Banks, work that would have gotten less-established actors greater notice.
Sight unseen, his work in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as Fred Rogers is already being dismissed as naysayers are claiming that Hanks, being the nice guy that he is, is simply playing himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most magical thing about this noble film is the subtle trick Hanks pulls off in becoming Rogers. The actor's physicality and the vocal cadence we've come to know are nowhere to be found as he simply disappears in the role, bringing the beloved educator to life in a quiet, modest manner that proves to be a purest example of screen acting. As every actor should be, Hanks is in service of the film; there's no grandstanding here, simply a sincere and successful effort to pay tribute to the common American saint of the late 20th century.
I suspect Neighborhood's structure would have pleased Rogers as he is not the focus, but rather his good works. The protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical writer who's been assigned to do a short profile of Rogers for Esquire Magazine. Estranged from and bitterly angry with his father (Chris Cooper), who's recently reentered his life in an effort to make amends, the writer's ire clouds every aspect of his life. He's on the verge of alienating his wife (Susan Watson) and recognizes he's not spending enough time with his newborn son. This is not the guy you assign to profile someone who seems too-good-to-be-true, and while Vogel may not consciously set out to expose Rogers as a fraud, that notion is lurking just beneath the surface.
Based on the article by Tom Junod, Vogel's story may be predictable but that doesn't make it any less meaningful. His journey toward granting his father forgiveness and coming to see the world as a place filled with injured people such as himself – who should be treated with understanding and sympathy rather than scorn and disdain – is meaningful because it's sincere. Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster share the credit for taking the premise lurking in Junod's article and creating a worthwhile lesson with nary a trace of cynicism.
This is no easy task, living in a chaotic world where distrust and divisiveness is sown. I personally questioned whether we needed another film about Rogers after the success of last year's documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor," which so effectively spread the Gospel of Fred. Turns out, I was wrong. We can't be subjected to Rogers' message of hope and understanding enough, as it seems there are far too many people who have yet to take his simple but sound beliefs to heart. Thanks to Heller and Hanks, this message is delivered in such a way that neither have to raise their voices to effectively drive it home.
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