Believe it or not, Tom Hanks' last Oscar nomination was for Best Actor in the film "Cast Away" (2000). Even if he had marked roles in several recent Oscar Best Picture nominees -- "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (2011), "Captain Phillips" (2013), "Bridge of Spies" (2015) and "The Post" (2017) -- Hanks was never cited by the Academy again for nearly 20 years. It was only this last Oscar season when he finally nabbed a nomination again, this time for Best Supporting Actor in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (2019).
Maybe because Mr. Rogers was not as well-known a TV personality here in this part of the world as he was Stateside, I did not notice if this film ever got released in local movie houses, even if it was Tom Hanks who played him. I wanted to see why Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Supporting Actor if he was playing Mr. Rogers in a film about Mr. Rogers. Thankfully, this month, this film gets it turn to be streamed on Netflix, so my question can now be answered. (Ed's note: This film is also available on Apple TV and Google Play.)
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) was a tough investigative writer from Esquire Magazine who had an unsavory reputation of being cynical and mercilessly negative in his writing style. He was married to a public attorney Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and they just had a new baby boy Gavin. Lloyd had a tough childhood as his mother died when he was still a child, and he had to grow up harboring major ill will against his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper).
One day, Lloyd was assigned by his editor to interview and write a feature article about Fred Rogers, who was the host of the beloved long-running children's show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" on American public television. Reluctant as he was about writing what he thought would be a shallow fluff piece, Lloyd went to Pittsburgh to meet his subject. He was about to encounter a unique man whose strength lay in his magnanimous empathy.
Okay, so technically the lead character of the story was Lloyd Vogel and it was his character who will be undergoing a transformative arc. However, there was certainly no denying that it was really the magnetic character of Fred Rogers who is the very heart and soul of this film. It was Mr. Rogers who was in the opening scene, and it was also him in the final scene. Despite what his numerous nominations for Best Supporting Actor may suggest, Tom Hanks was definitely a co-lead, if not the main lead, in this film.
Hanks completely dominated this film with his consistent and convincing portrait of Mr. Rogers. I may not have seen a single episode of the old TV series, but I was sold, Hanks was totally Mr. Rogers. Hanks has one of the most famous and distinctive faces in Hollywood, so he cannot really disappear into a role, we always see his face. However, for some reason, he can always make us believe that he was ship captain Phillips or skilled pilot Sully, or even iconic celebrities like Walt Disney, or this one, Mr. Rogers.
Matthew Rhys does his best in his challenging but unlikable role, but the screen presence of Hanks was simply too luminously bright to match. Hanks' line delivery in Rogers' characteristic slow gentle cadence never became boring. His face was always with that kind smile which never rang false. The best scenes for me were those with Rogers voicing his hand puppets, Rogers being serenaded by children and Rogers playing piano with his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett). It was great to see long-missed actors in smaller roles, like Christine Lahti (as Lloyd's editor) and Wendy Makkena (as Jerry's second wife).
At first, I thought I might not like this Marielle Heller-directed biopic about an icon unfamiliar to me. However, I ended up hooked from the start and watched the whole thing without let up until the very end. This was a very pleasant surprise for me, an engaging and emotionally enriching film experience.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."