By John H. Foote
Watching Tom Hanks emerge into one of American cinema’s greatest actors has been nothing but a pleasure. From his breakthrough as the man child in Big (1988), to his two consecutive Academy Award-winning performances as the AIDS afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia (1993) and the idiot savant stumbling through American history in Forrest Gump (1994), to his equally Oscar calibre work in Apollo 13 (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Cast Away (2000), for which he should have won a third Academy Award, Hanks has been nothing short of extraordinary. He walks that line so few can as a great actor and genuine movie star.
Incredibly in the years that have passed since Cast Away (2000), arguably his finest performance, he has not been nominated for a single Academy Award. It is as if the Academy decided they had honoured him enough so they cut him off, which of course is foolish. In the nearly two decades since that last nomination, of course, he has been deserving!
Road to Perdition (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Terminal (2004), Cloud Atlas (2009), Captain Phillips (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015), and Sully (2016) were all at the very least nomination worthy, his breakdown at the end of Captain Phillips among the finest work he has ever committed to the screen. I cannot see how the Academy can possibly ignore Hanks for his wonderful performance as Fred Rogers in this new film, he goes as far as he has ever gone in a role to disappear.
The film opens like the famous Mr. Rogers program opened with the host entering, singing his iconic song as he removes his jacket, pulling on his famous cardigan. Then continuing to sing he sits and removes his outdoor shoes to pull on his indoor shoes, all the while looking at the audience tuning in by the millions. In these brief seconds, Hanks disappears under the skin of Fred Rogers and absolutely becomes the character. We never see a trace of Tom Hanks again, only Mr. Rogers.
Fred Rogers dedicated his life to children, to educating them about life, kindness, teaching them how to be gentle, good people even in the face of adversary. Rogers never sugar-coated the world or life for his viewers but he provided them with the grace and strength they would need to get through. By all accounts he was an extraordinary man filled with something the human race sorely lacks – hope, optimism, and love for his neighbour. He operated on the coda, love thy neighbour and the world was a better place for his having been here.
Late in his career on the Pittsburgh cable television station where his show was taped then broadcast nationally, he was interviewed by an Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), struggling with his relationship with his father. In obvious pain, Rogers took the man into his life and helped him deal with it. The writer, a hard-edged, cynical man, sees no way out with his father, but he is mesmerized by Rogers, he just cannot believe the man can be this good, can be that good a man. Can anyone? He fights the friendship, thinking he is being had, but slowly he realizes Rogers is the real deal, that this kind man is genuine with no pretense, nothing about him is false.
I need to be clear on this next statement.
Tom Hanks gives a supporting performance, he is not the lead in the film. The lead is Matthew Rhys portraying Vogel, who was really named Tom Junod. Both actors are exceptional but expect Hanks to get the lion’s share of great reviews because, well he is Tom Hanks, and the performance is simply astonishing. If the film has any single disappointment, it was that there was not more Hanks, that this was not a biography dedicated entirely to the man.
“There is no human life free from pain,” says Mr. Rogers to his young friend and he helps Lloyd understand that all pain can be overcome with the right attitude, which involves forgiving the person you are struggling with. Vogel is amazed that when Mr. Rogers shakes his hand he feels like the only person in the world, that when he gazes into his eyes, it is just the two of them talking, and when they are out in public and Mr. Rogers is recognized he is always gracious and kind with everyone he encounters. Though Lloyd is sent to interview Mr. Rogers, it becomes clear from the beginning Rogers is interviewing Lloyd, seeing a man in pain and hoping to get to the bottom of it.
Hanks is simply magnificent in the film, perfect in every way. There is not a false note in his performance, he never steps out of character, he does not ACT the part, he inhabits every single aspect of it. Though the supporting actor field is mighty crowded this year, I cannot see how the Academy cannot nominate him and if they do not they have done the actor a grave injustice.
Rhys is very good as Vogel, an angry writer with a wife and new child who is struggling with emotions about his father. They encounter one another at his sister’s wedding, it goes poorly, but his father refuses to stop trying, wanting to make amends with his son. Chris Cooper is excellent as his father, each wounded by the past, each wanting closure but not sure how to get there.
Marielle Heller directed the film with grace and the right gentle touch. She uses the sets from the Mr. Rogers Show in the picture to merge the make-believe of his program with the reality of the real world. It is an interesting choice, one of great imagination and brings something special and magical to the film. Knowing her greatest job was casting, one feels she sat back and let the actors do their job, sometimes the hardest thing for a director to do.
It is a beautiful film about a decent, generous and very kind man. In this day and age of Trump, and the anger in the streets, how we need Mr. Rogers now. He really was one of a kind.
So is Tom Hanks.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”