You’d be forgiven for thinking that this film is a biopic focusing centrally on Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers – primarily known for the American childrens’ show, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood (which ran for 33 years between 1968 to 2001) – from the amount of awards buzz from his performance (and having just nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for his performance), and also how, the film’s poster sees him front and centre. However, the film itself, while partly a biopic, is a very different beast.
Based on the article Esquire magazine article “Can You Say… Hero” by journalist, Tom Jurod, the film focuses on Lloyd Vassel (portrayed by Matthew Rhys, which is loosely based off of Jurod), who is given an assignment to interview Rogers. Vassel – who has a new baby with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and is dealing with a long-standing feud with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) – soon has his outlook on life drastically changed by Rogers and his lovely positivity.
Firstly, Hanks’s performance is really terrific. The bit of casting could appear slightly on the nose, as like Rogers, Hanks is often known in real life, for being a really nice guy. However, what is sometimes forgotten about Hanks is that he really is a fantastic actor, and here, Hanks really embodies Rogers. Much in the same way as Renee Zellweger’s terrific performance as Judy Garland in this year’s Judy (which has also just nabbed her a Golden Globe nomination), Hanks also manages to capture the essence of Rogers, including his voice and his mannerisms.
The film often details Rogers’ wonderful acts of kindness (including how he always greeted an fan before filming an episode) and how he always seems genuinely interested in every conversation he has, and Hanks is able to make these moments feel very real and believable. This is particularly significant for this film because when the film descents into sentimentality, it never feels schmaltzy or fake, and you can honestly tell how Vogel ends up opening up to Rogers, and having his life changed.
When Hanks is off-screen, however, the film slightly struggles. The story of Vogel, his family and his relationship with his father is perfectly fine, and Rhys gives a pretty solid performance. However, it all feels slightly too predictable, and a little too safe. Also, as perfectly fine as Watson is, her character of Vogel’s wife is slightly poorly developed. It’s the sort of movie in which the characters consistently complain the lead character, and the film sometimes fails to articulate properly why he is so unlikeable.
The film, directed by Marielle Heller – who over the past decade has directed critically acclaimed films, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) (she likes her long titles) – makes some odd directional choices here and there. The film has a peculiar framing device in how Rogers starts telling the story on one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, which never quite works or clicks into place. There are also some strange scene transitions, here and there, that go from this framing device to the actual story, that never quite work.
The real strength of the film, however, is Hanks’ performance. Heller, who directed Oscar nominated performances by Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, definitely knows how to direct good performances, but still needs to improve on making really investing films. Despite this, however, the film overall is really heart-warming and lovely film that is well worth seeing for Hanks.