Cinematic Releases: The Cathartic Nostalgia of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

The TriStar Pegasus. The 4:3 aspect ratio. The VHS filter. All of these elements immediately wrapped me up as snugly as a cardigan, as I settled in for a viewing of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile, Can You Say...Hero?, the film is cinematic therapy.

We open with a re-creation of a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episode, with Tom Hanks playing the famed children’s television host. Between the toggling from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the crisp, digital picture, to the “old-school” 4:3 aspect ratio with the fuzzy VHS filter, I could tell that the director, Marielle Heller, and Anne McCabe, the editor, were trying to frame the story deliberately, but I couldn’t figure out how. Having gone to college in Pittsburgh, I found it initially disorienting to see the New York City skyline depicted in the famous and signature miniature set design style from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As the movie unfolds, however, Heller and McCabe’s conceit becomes clearer: the story told in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just one story, just one episode from the life of a show that was not separate from the life of the artist, Fred Rogers.

The story follows a journalist named Lloyd Vogel, a hard-nosed investigative journalist forcibly assigned to write a “puff piece” on Fred Rogers. Clearly world-weary and cynical, Vogel faces several obstacles in his personal and professional life that prevent him from being whole. Between a troubled marriage, struggles with fatherhood, a broken relationship with his father, in addition to being near the end of his rope at work, Vogel finds salvation in a former minister and feel-good television host Mr. Rogers.

During his first in-person interview with Mr. Rogers, Vogel complains that “I thought that I had twenty minutes”, simultaneously  acting out as a journalist cut short, and someone in need of more therapy. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, we get to watch a great character study, in which we see a man’s emotional retaining walls crumble before our eyes, as he gradually partakes in the difficult task of forgiving his father for past transgressions.

The therapeutic aspect of this film evokes on-screen and off-screen references to Oprah Winfrey, Joseph Campbell, and Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried. Rogers, like Winfrey, acted like a televangelist, dispensing good feelings, as well as catharsis, through the small screen. Rogers, also like Joseph Campbell, brings to mind the definition of hero, wherein Tod Junod’s, Can You Say...Hero?, the source material for the movie, sets up a plot line wherein we witness an astounding figure who makes personal sacrifices for the good of other people. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood conjures up feelings from The Things They Carried, a book about the healing power of storytelling, through the themes of holding onto personal burden and letting it go through purposeful re-framing.

--Blake Pynnonen