While watching the House impeachment hearings, I had a clarifying insight. Like many people, I was having trouble understanding how Republican lawmakers like Devin Nunes could live with themselves. Since they had the smarts to get elected to national public office, I assume they're not idiots. Since they have eyes and ears, I assume they could see and hear witness after witness testify that Donald Trump had sold out the country for his perceived personal interest, detailing how he had abused the powers our system gives the president to twist foreign policy into extortion. And yet, these people willingly parroted conspiracy theories based on Russian propaganda. I understand playing for your team. What I don't understand is putting team before country and sacrificing your integrity on the altar of Trump.
What I came to realize was this: They — and the Fox News junkies who support them — think this is all a cynical power play because they cannot conceive of anything else. These are people who, for four years, pressed a contrived investigation into Hillary Clinton's involvement in the 2012 Benghazi incident. They assume, since their own big investigation was a cynical ploy to trash a political opponent for propaganda fodder, that all congressional investigations are also cynical ploys. They know in their heart of hearts that they lack integrity, so they cannot admit that anyone else could possibly have integrity. What good is integrity, anyway? It's obviously only a hindrance to making money and accumulating power.
This is where Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) finds himself at the beginning of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. We meet Lloyd accepting the National Magazine Award for an investigative piece he did for Esquire. Lloyd has a beautiful and talented wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and a brand-new baby. But he's not a happy family man. At his sister Lorraine's (Tammy Blanchard) wedding ("I love going to these every year," he quips), he sees his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), and the reunion turns into a fistfight. The next day, sporting a hell of a black eye, he gets a new assignment from his editor. Esquire is doing an issue on heroes, and Lloyd is to do a profile on children's television host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).
Andrea is excited. She loves Mr. Rogers! Who doesn't? But for Lloyd, used to locking horns with corruption and exposing liars, it seems like a demotion. His initial interview is delayed because Mr. Rogers is spending time with a Make-A-Wish kid, but all Lloyd can see is a privileged celebrity, a diva. He keeps questioning Fred Rogers, trying to find a crack in his saintly veneer. The most telling question he asks is, "How are you different from the character you play on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood?"
For Fred Rogers, this does not compute because he's not playing a character. Who he is on the inside is exactly the person he appears to be on the outside. His entire life has been devoted to making that so. The only characters he plays are the puppets Daniel Tiger and King Friday XIII, which are more akin to expressions of different parts of his psyche than, say, what Tom Hanks is doing when he's playing Mr. Rogers. But his eloquent attempt to demonstrate this to Lloyd goes terribly wrong, and the two men are stuck in a standoff: the cynic who can't believe in honesty confronted with an honest man. Fortunately for Lloyd, this is not Mr. Rogers' first rodeo. He's seen, and defeated, cynicism many times before.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on the story of real-life Esquire writer Tom Junod, who credits his 1998 cover story "Can You Say ... Hero?" with saving his life. In the hands of a director less skilled and empathetic than Marielle Heller, a film like this could easily spiral into the maudlin. But Heller, whose Diary of a Teenage Girl is one of the decades' overlooked gems, executes brilliantly.
And then there's Tom Hanks. How does a movie star with one of the world's most recognizable faces disappear into the role of someone else with an instantly recognizable face? I saw it happen, and I still don't have an answer. At this point, as a film critic and jaded magazine writer, I'm supposed to call Hanks' performance Oscar bait. But that would be cynical of me, and after seeing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I think maybe I've been too cynical for too long.