Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
There’s a little bit of a bait-and-switch here. You think this film is going to be about Fred Rogers, the iconic, TV personality who created and hosted the children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Unfortunately, it’s not about Fred Rogers at all. Yes, Fred Rogers is a character in the narrative, but it’s not about him. It’s ultimately disappointing because the person into whom I wanted a deeper dive was Fred Rogers. Instead, we get a deep dive into someone else. The film is an adaptation of a 1998 article by Tom Junod for Esquire magazine. Junod was supposed to profile Rogers for the magazine, which he did, but he also put a bit of himself in the piece. Later, he talked about being profoundly changed by his encounter with Rogers. The film here takes that idea and completely runs away with it. Fred Rogers is certainly a presence in this film, but he’s not the protagonist.
Two-time Oscar winner, Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump and Philadelphia) plays Fred Rogers, the man who ran the aforementioned TV show. We meet him in 1998 when he’s in his late sixties. He’s married with two sons. We get a little bit of his relationship with his wife. He mentions briefly his sons and vaguely comments on some issues with them. We also get some minor details like he’s a vegetarian and he plays the piano. His job requires him to sing and be a puppeteer. We get that he’s a religious man, working as a minister. He likely sees his TV show as a kind of ministry. He doesn’t seem to be proselytizing. His stated goal is to teach children, particularly young children how to deal with their emotions. His tone constantly is to be mostly quiet and soft, emphasizing gratitude and compassion with people with whom he’s engaging.
Matthew Rhys won the Emmy for his role in FX’s The Americans. He’s worked in TV for a long time, but he recently worked with Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017). Here, he stars as Lloyd Vogel, the proxy for Tom Junod but not exactly the same. Lloyd is also a writer for Esquire. He’s won a National Magazine Award. However, he’s developed a bit of a reputation. His subjects seemingly don’t like his articles. It’s caused certain people not to want to be interviewed by him. Yet, his boss hasn’t fired him or said that his writing was bad. He won an award, so clearly his writing is good. But when his boss assigns him to profile Fred Rogers, I’m not sure if it’s meant to be a punishment for him or if there’s truly nothing else he could be writing about.
Lloyd has some personal problems, one of which is his contentious and horrible relationship with his father. Lloyd is married and has a newborn baby. Overall, he’s living his life fairly well. He’s planning on attending the wedding of his sister but things take a turn though when he learns that his estranged father will be attending the wedding as well. Lloyd hasn’t forgiven his father for cheating on Lloyd’s mother when she was sick and abandoning the family for his mistress. Lloyd’s father’s attitude doesn’t appear all that apologetic and certain comments from his father causes Lloyd to get into a fight at the wedding. Lloyd also has a tendency to put work over family, which he uses to avoid dealing with his father and their issues.
When he goes to Pittsburgh where Fred Rogers lives, Fred realizes that Lloyd has been in a fight, thanks to the bruises on Lloyd’s face. Fred makes it his mission to figure out why and help minister to Lloyd. Lloyd is supposed to be interviewing Fred for his article, but Fred turns it around and makes their time together as almost therapy sessions for Lloyd. Director Marielle Heller uses the framework of recreating Fred’s TV show but having Lloyd be the subject. It’s a way of showing how Fred Rogers helped not only children but also adults. However, because the film has Fred turning the tables on Lloyd, we lose any interrogation into the puppet-master. For example, the vagueness about Fred’s relationship with his sons and their issues is left vague. For a man who talks about parenting, the fact that we don’t see how his own parenting went feels unsatisfying. Fred Rogers is rendered here as not much more than a Manic Pixie Dream Father-Figure.
There are also things that are learned in the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018). It’s not clear if Lloyd did as much research into Fred Rogers as was done in that documentary. For him, he probably hoped the actual interviews would allow for opening up avenues for exploration. But avenues that the documentary opened up were things I hoped would be touched upon in this film, but there was no such luck.
One of those things was Fred Rogers’ relationship with François Clemmons, a gay black man who was an actor on Rogers’ show. The documentary talked about how Rogers did an episode of his show where he and Clemmons put their feet together in a tiny pool. The moment was supposed to address the racial discrimination against black people in swimming pools at that time in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, the documentary also revealed that Rogers told Clemmons that he couldn’t go to gay bars and he couldn’t do anything that would indicate he was gay because it might offend conservative viewers of his show. This is a homophobic thing that is never confronted in the documentary and it’s never confronted in this film. One of Rogers’ chief messages is that he likes people for who they are and he accepts people for who they are. Rogers’ telling Clemmons that he couldn’t be gay is antithetical to that message at best and homophobic at worst.
Given the time period and who Rogers was, a Republican, conservative minister, it’s not shocking that he would tell Clemmons to do that, especially in the 1960’s. However, as the decades went on and by the time Lloyd meets Fred in the late 90’s, there is no reason why Fred couldn’t address it on his show or publicly in some way. It’s stated that Fred is not shy when talking about heavy topics, such as death and war. He lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its effect specifically on gay men. Does he think homosexuality is a sin? Does he think gay people are going to hell? Does he believe that gay people should be able to marry? Does he believe gay people should be able to adopt children? It’s an important test for someone who claims what Rogers claimed. Yet, we get none of it.
Again, Fred Rogers is rendered as not much more than a Manic Pixie Dream Father-Figure. This comes from the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is a character in a film who exists only to help some soulful and brooding guy to pursue his happiness but the character herself never has much, if any depth to her. This type of character is more notable when it’s a female character. The archetype can be male though, but there have been variations on that archetype, such as the archetype being a black person. Fred Rogers as a character here isn’t as Manic Pixie Dream, but he’s skirting that line.
Rated PG for mild language and a brief fight.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.