Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
China/USA, 2019. Big Beach Films, Tencent Pictures, TriStar Pictures. Screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster. Cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes. Produced by Youree Henley, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub. Music by Nate Heller. Production Design by Jade Healy. Costume Design by Arjun Bhasin. Film Editing by Anne McCabe. Academy Awards 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
Matthew Rhys plays a reporter for Esquire magazine whose penchant for taking apart famous egos has given him a negative reputation. When his editor (played by a radiant Christine Lahti) asks him to do a four hundred-word profile on one of the subjects of their issue on American heroes, he balks at the assignment, first because a puff piece is beneath the kind of investigative journalism they hired him for and second because they’ve assigned him to a figure as ignoble as Fred Rogers, the famed children’s television show host who was at this point enjoying his third decade hosting a program that had raised many of the country’s children. Lahti tells him that no other person being considered for the piece was willing to be interviewed by him, so Rhys flies himself to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers, not long after attending his sister’s wedding where his unresolved issues with his father (Chris Cooper) get him into a nasty fistfight. Rogers (portrayed with precise warmth and charm by Tom Hanks) immediately notices Rhys’ pain and tries to draw his family discord out of him, but our protagonist refuses, sticking instead to the job and believing that the real story is whether or not Mr. Rogers is a fraud. Surely the man who doles out as much patience and understanding to his television audience as he does to his crew and adoring fans on the street has a breaking point, a secret life or some form of crooked business dealings, but try as he may, Rhys can’t find it, instead revealing his own issues dealing with his father’s abandonment of him as a child and how it affects his feelings for his own newborn son. The convenience of the author’s plot fitting into Rogers’ mission to let us all feel our feelings without trying to figure them out, not to mention the opportunity for a surrogate-father narrative, creates a ripe opportunity for the worst kind of manipulative nonsense, but with a sturdy script supporting a first-rate cast and intelligent direction by Marielle Heller guiding them all, the film is instead a tribute and an evocation of the host’s own program. On camera, Rogers spoke softly and slowly and never felt the pressure to be perpetually entertaining, relieving his audience of the need to keep up with anything too complicated for them, telling them that whatever they were going through, no matter how bad, wasn’t their fault and that we can all find constructive ways to deal with our feelings if we just acknowledge that we are having them. Hanks takes on a gargantuan task portraying so venerated a figure in American popular culture (and one whose admiration was solidified by the recent documentary that revealed that, actually, there was nothing shady behind this man’s mission); putting on that cardigan, the awkward smile and doing the Mr.-Furley-on-Zoloft voice without being satirical or, worse, creepy is Hanks’s most impressive accomplishment on screen yet. Rhys matches him with a very tender performance that never overdoes the pathos, something also impressive in a movie that is brimming with touchy-feely moments, Cooper has his best role in years as a man trying to fix the past before it’s too late, and Wendy Makkena shines in a supporting role as Cooper’s girlfriend.