Review of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. He’s married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and they have a beautiful baby boy named Gavin. The Vogels go to his sister Lorraine’s (Tammy Blanchard) wedding where his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) is giving away the bride. Jerry abandoned the family right after Lloyd’s mother discovered she had terminal cancer. Lloyd holds a great deal of resentment towards Jerry and when Jerry drunkenly tries talking to him, Lloyd punches him and is punched by another person in the wedding. Lloyd’s editor at Esquire, Ellen (Christine Lahti), assigns him to write a brief article on children’s show host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine’s edition focusing on heroes. Lloyd is offended at being given a puff piece, but Ellen shoos him away to write the story. Lloyd calls to set up an interview and later that night, Fred Rogers calls and chats with Lloyd. Lloyd then goes to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is recorded, to meet with him. Their interview doesn’t go as Lloyd expects and is cut short with Rogers needed on set. Lloyd tells Andrea, Rogers is too good to be true. He tells Ellen he needs more time and interviews with Rogers as he’s more complicated than he appears. Through all this, Jerry is trying to talk with Lloyd, parking outside his apartment for two days and showing up with pizza. Lloyd is obsessed with breaking through and getting to the REAL Fred Rogers.

This will be a short review. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is an amazing and unique film. It seems very straightforward in the trailers and looks light a heartwarming story of an unusual friendship, and it is. However, the movie is far from straightforward in the way it tells the story, how it frames the events and what the movie is really about. There are few films that can be both simple and complex, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” manages to pull off that trick.

Tom Hanks is everything you’d want and expect him to be as Mr. Rogers. He has that infinite kindness in his eyes. He’s unremarkable while also being remarkable. Rogers loved children and loved to teach them about the world the way it is, with all the pain and heartbreak, but in the most gentle way. Hanks embodies Mr. Rogers fully, exuding a warmth and kindness that would be looked upon with suspicion should anyone else behave the same way. Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel casts a doubtful eye on Hanks’ Rogers. That just makes Rogers treat him with more love and understanding, which infuriates Vogel.

The way their early interactions are written is filled with uncomfortable silences as Rogers doesn’t answer Vogel’s questions and begins trying to break through Vogel’s angry shell. Rogers might be thought of as passive-aggressive in these scenes, but he’s really looking for Vogel’s soft spot. That part of his personality, his soul, that is hurting and needs soothing compassion. Just before their first meeting, Rogers’ business partner Bill Isler, played by Enrico Colantoni, tells Vogel that Rogers loves guys like him, and that bit of dialog comes back later during a pivotal scene. Vogel is a hardened man. His writing looks for the dirt, the darkness in his subjects. It’s getting harder for him to find stories because anyone that’s read his work doesn’t want to talk to him. He assumes the worst about people and manages to find the worst in everyone…except Fred Rogers. He keeps looking, but it isn’t there. He has plenty of darkness that he’s ignored for years. Now, with his father returning, that darkness and anger is beginning to take over.

The film uses miniatures that look like the Neighborhood of Make Believe to do the interstitials between scenes, like when Lloyd is traveling from New York to Pittsburgh and other scene transitions. It’s an unusual choice when stock footage of planes taking off or highway traffic could have been used. But it becomes comforting to watch a small model of a jetliner move down a runway and takeoff nearly straight up, like a child was guiding the movements.

I believe the director, Marielle Heller, might have been showing us how the mundane reality of air travel, commuting and other things we find tedious is like child’s play in the grand scheme. We often complain about traffic jams, security lines at airports, long waits at the grocery checkout, when it’s all meaningless. We ignore the suffering of millions around the world, turn our eyes away from the homeless person on the corner, shrug our shoulders at hate crimes on the nightly news as if to say, “What are you gonna do?” Mr. Rogers Neighborhood of Make Believe touched on difficult subjects with old puppets and simple songs for toddlers. He talked about looking for people that helped in times of trouble as a sign of hope. The childlike quality of parts of this film are an attempt to open our minds and give the world, with all its hate, war, crime and suffering, a look with fresh, childlike eyes.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language. The fight consists of a shove and a couple of punches. Family abandonment is the focus of much of the film. Language is very mild and infrequent.

I don’t know if “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” will get Tom Hanks another Oscar nod, but the film deserves to win any and every award for which it’s nominated. The final scene of Hanks playing a piano in the dark should get him at least consideration. It is such a sweet film with unexpected moments of humor and joy, it might get run over by other more “serious” movies about big, important ideas. That’s fine, I suppose. But if you want to watch a film that works over your tear ducts and gives them a strong punch every now and again, then “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is definitely the film for you.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” gets five tear-stained stars.

The holiday delivers a couple of very different releases for your post-Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll be seeing at least one of the following:

Knives Out—

 
 

Queen & Slim—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Bridge of Spies”

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a Soviet spy operating out of his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. He is captured by federal agents and, after failing to get him to cooperate and become a double agent, plan on putting him on trial for espionage. If convicted, he would likely be executed. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer with a major New York firm. He is approached by the government to act as legal counsel for Abel. Despite not having practiced criminal law in decades, Donovan agrees. Meanwhile, the CIA is interviewing Air Force pilots to fly the U2 spy plane over Soviet territory and take pictures of various installations. One of those pilots is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers and several others are accepted into the program and trained on how to operate the aircraft and what to do should they be shot down: Set the self-destruct mechanism in the plane and, if they are near a friendly border, bail out. Otherwise, they are instructed to go down with the plane. If they do bail out and face capture, they are supposed to commit suicide using a poisoned needle. Abel goes on trial and despite Donovan’s best efforts is convicted. He is sentenced to 30 years in prison. Powers goes up on his first mission and despite assurances the plane flew higher than Soviet defenses could shoot, his plane is hit by missiles and the damage blows him out of the cockpit, preventing him from setting off the self-destruct. Powers is captured and put on trial where he is found guilty and sentenced to a long term in a Russian prison. A cryptic letter received by Donovan from someone claiming to be Abel’s wife sets in motion a series of events that leads him to becoming the unofficial negotiator of a prisoner swap between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: The spy Rudolf Abel for the spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers with the exchange to take place in the newly walled off East Berlin.

“Bridge of Spies” is not a film to watch if you are looking for action and adventure…at least the way it is depicted in the run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie. The excitement of “Bridge of Spies” comes from the knowledge that much of what is being shown on screen actually happened. A common man with no connection to the government was called upon to defend an accused Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War when doing so likely made him, in the eyes of the country, a traitor. He argued for the rights of a man that wasn’t a citizen but should be given every privilege the Constitution provides in regards to his criminal case. It was a brave stand to take at a time when just being connected to the American Communist Party could get you fired from your job.

There’s no better person to portray a man of singular courage and strongly held beliefs than Tom Hanks. Hanks makes Donovan an everyman with an uncommon sense of fairness. With the twinkle in his eye and the soft spoken delivery we’ve come to know, love and expect, Hanks portrays Donovan as a zealous advocate that can verbally beat you to death with logic and knowledge and make you feel the better for it. Even when he comes up against a judge that has already made up his mind and ignores all of his constitutionally based arguments about the evidence, Donovan maintains his cool despite his abhorrence at the miscarriage of justice being forced upon his client. Donovan doesn’t mind being less subtle when he’s pressured by a CIA agent to tell him what Abel has said in their meetings. Hanks can fix a stare at the target of his wrath that could peel paint off a wall; yet, when he schools the agent on the constitution, it is done with firmness but gentleness.

Hanks is a fantastic actor that seems like a fantastic person. I’ve heard him interviewed by Chris Hardwick a couple of times on Hardwick’s “Nerdist” podcast. Hanks appears as down to earth and average as any of his roles. Whether he’s playing a ship captain being held at gunpoint by Somali pirates or the lead astronaut on a trip to the moon that goes horribly wrong, Tom Hanks always seems to play his role with understated strength and calm that makes the moments when his character loses that calm all the more affecting. (Spoiler Alert) At the end of “Captain Phillips,” when he’s been rescued and is finally safe, Hanks does a slow meltdown that gives me chills to this day when I think about it. The veneer of control that slowly melts away into unbridled shaking and tears is one of the greatest and most emotional pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. It breaks your heart thinking about what could drive a man to such a break down and, even though we’ve seen all he’s been through and completely understand, it still hits you like a bolt from the blue. While the deeply emotional scene in “Bridge of Spies” isn’t as striking as “Captain Phillips” it resonates all the same because of how we see Donovan behave throughout the film. This may not have been as wrenching a performance as his AIDS suffering lawyer in “Philadelphia” or as sympathetic as “Forrest Gump,” Hanks is still likely to be in the running for a nomination when awards season rolls around.

While Hanks is the focus of the story, the other terrific performance in “Bridge of Spies” comes from Mark Rylance as the stoic Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The scenes he and Hanks share are usually brief but they are powerful. Rylance gives a quiet performance that makes Hanks almost look like Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” His Soviet spy is resigned to whatever fate is to befall him, sometimes at the chagrin of Donovan. More than once in the film Donovan asks Abel if he is worried. Each time the answer is “Would it help?” The unspoken answer is of course no. Rylance plays Abel as both a confused old man as well as a crafty operative. Once he’s caught, the cover of confusion is cast aside and he’s strictly business. The way Rylance plays Abel made me curious about the character. I’d like to see a movie about how he became a Soviet spy and the adventures he had. While the spy world isn’t nearly as glamourous and exciting as we see in “James Bond” movies, I’m certain in the hands of someone like “Bridge of Spies” director Steven Spielberg the story would be more than worth watching.

The movie could be seen as commentary on how easy it is to question ones patriotism in a time of crisis. Donovan’s allegiance to America is questioned a couple of times in the film because he fights for Abel’s rights as a defendant in the courts. Since the attacks of 9/11, the loyalty of Americans has been questioned that believe those being held on terrorism charges in Guantanamo Bay should be accorded the right to representation and trial by jury. Others don’t see the problem of collecting the phone calls, emails and internet history of average Americans without probable cause asking, “Why should I worry since I have nothing to hide?” Despite the “common sense” appeal of that sentiment, Ben Franklin is often quoted as saying “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Franklin’s quote, taken out of context from a letter to the Pennsylvania colonial governor, has very little to do with what we associate it with today; however, the conflict between Donovan and those that wish he wouldn’t try so hard to defend Abel and those that want terrorism suspects quickly tried and convicted and those that believe they should be given the same fair trial as an American citizen is painfully similar. Your opinion of the film might depend on your feelings about that argument.

“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some violence. Gun shots hit Donovan’s house in an attempt to intimidate him. We see Francis Gary Powers roughed up a little by Russian interrogators. We see some people trying to get over the Berlin Wall shot by guards. There are other brief bits of violence. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild but the film does get its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”

Many may find “Bridge of Spies” to be dull as it mostly consists of people talking. I would argue anyone that finds this movie dull is not paying enough attention. The stakes faced by the characters, the time in history and the brilliant acting make the film a true gem in what is often a mound of coal lumps. If you care nothing for the past, the old Soviet Union and the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation then you should avoid this film at all costs. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what America was like during the hottest part of the Cold War, then “Bridge of Spies” is a must see. I would also recommend it if you just like really well done movies.

“Bridge of Spies” gets five enthusiastic stars.

Four more movies hit theatres this week and I’ll see and review at least one of them.

Jem and the Holograms—

The Last Witch Hunter—

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension—

Rock the Kasbah—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.