It might feel like everywhere you look these days, there’s doom and gloom. Our country is burning, voters overseas are having to choose between a rock and a hard place, everything you eat is somehow bad for you and the cost of living just gets higher.
You’d be forgiven for having a pessimistic outlook on the state of the world!
That’s why a bit of big-screen escapism is so wonderful. We’re talking about the old-fashioned kind of cinema experience that transports you to a nicer place, with real heroes, entrancing stories and happy endings.
It takes a special kind of actor to lead that kind of film, though. Hollywood ‘stars’ are a dime a dozen but only a few conduct their real lives with the humility, decency and good manners that we connect with simpler, happier times.
Tom Hanks ticks all of those boxes. He’s a down-to-earth guy who does good deeds without seeking applause, and his life with wife Rita Wilson and their children is decidedly scandal-free. He’s the ultimate nice guy – in life and in movies.
You might’ve loved him best as Forrest Gump, the brave Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan or a modern-day hero in Sully, but there’s no arguing that no matter what character he plays, Hanks brings his own humble demeanour and likeable presence to the screen.
His latest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Hanks portrays much-loved American children’s television host, Fred Rogers, is no different. And that makes the movie perfect escapist viewing.
From 1968 to 2001, American kids tuned in to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was the longest-running children’s television series until 2003, when it was surpassed by Sesame Street.
The creator, producer and star of the show was a Presbyterian minister called Fred Rogers, who was far ahead of his time in his focus on children’s emotions and on helping them deal with ‘adult’ concepts such as divorce and death, as well as everyday worries such as the passing of a pet, getting accustomed to a new sibling or starting at a new school.
As Hanks himself says: “Fred Rogers was beloved in the eyes of the children who watched him right at that core time when they needed somebody to explain the world to them in a calm and almost quiet kind of way, because their parents are always too busy to explain such things”.
Inspired by award-winning journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile on Fred Rogers and the real-life friendship that developed between Junod and Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gently reminds the movie-goer of Fred Rogers’ dedication to empathy, kindness and decency – qualities that may be even more pertinent today than they were five decades ago.
Emmy Award-winner Matthew Rhys (best known for television series The Americans) plays Lloyd Vogel, a semi-fictionalised version of Junod. When Lloyd is assigned a profile on Rogers, he approaches the children’s icon with scepticism, not believing that anyone can really be that good of a person. However, he is immediately thrown off guard by Fred, disarmed by his honesty and the way he seems to somehow look into his soul. Bit by bit, Lloyd’s cynicism is chipped away, and he finds the lessons Fred teaches him change his life for the better.
Over the years, Hanks’ affable nature and relatable real-life choices have earned him the title of ‘America’s Dad’, which is no doubt why he was the obvious choice to portray the famously gentle, fatherly Rogers. In fact, Rhys says Hanks was the only choice for the lead role.
“He was kind of born to play Fred,” Rhys says. “There are so many qualities that Tom Hanks and Mister Rogers share, so many common feelings that they both elicit. It was like America’s dad playing America’s dad.”
Producer Peter Saraf agrees that in addition to Hanks being “one of the best actors working”, he embodies the same great qualities that Rogers brought to TV.
“Tom, over the course of his career, has built up an empathy with the audience, a trust with the audience and an adoration from the audience that is built upon the same kind of sincerity and authenticity that Fred had,” Saraf says.
It’s no wonder Hanks is popular, even with people who aren’t film fans – there are so many stories that show just what a nice person he is. Like the time he refunded fans who didn’t like one of his movies, or the time he befriended a New York cab driver and later invited him to one of his Broadway shows.
His acting career has earned him fans and accolades but he remains unaffected, according to former US president – and real-life friend – Barack Obama, who awarded Hanks the Kennedy Center Honor in 2014 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
“Tom has always saved his best role for real life,” Obama says of Hanks’ many awards. “He is a good man, which is the best title you can have.”
The actor certainly has received numerous gongs, including two Academy Awards, eight Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes – and critics are raving about his portrayal, with BBC describing it as “a rich and subtle performance, in which Hanks makes Fred Rogers’ sincerity completely convincing and real”.
Fred Rogers was heavily decorated too, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997 and the same Presidential Medal of Freedom as Hanks, but from President George W. Bush in 2002.
Rogers’ wife Joanne says that Rogers, who died of stomach cancer in 2003 at the age of 74, would have approved of the choice of Hanks to portray him in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
“Fred … admired Tom since his early days in movies, he loved his work,” Joanne Rogers says. “He loved Forrest Gump so much that literally, he saw it at least 15 times. And, I think maybe, maybe he related to Forrest Gump a bit. He certainly related to the characterisation that Tom gave it.”
Just as Rogers used his musical and puppetry skills to create a warm, friendly, kind and safe space for children to learn about the realities of growing up, Hanks has done the same with his acting craft and a back-catalogue of films that encourage adults to see the good in life, if only for 90 minutes.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens in Australian cinemas on January 23.