Tom Junod's “Can You Say … Hero?” is about Mr. Rogers as much as it is about the writer himself. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on the 1998 article, which tells a story about the television personality, the journalist, friendship, and faith.
Junod (played by Matthew Rhys under a different character name in the film) was assigned to write a profile of Mr. Rogers, the “nicest man in the world,” after writing a controversial Esquire article about Kevin Spacey that tiptoed around the actor's sexual orientation. Maybe the assignment was a way to bring Junod back into the nation’s good graces, or maybe it was just an experiment to see what happens when you put friendly Mr. Rogers and an antagonistic journalist together in one room. Any which way, it turned into a story that may have been greater than either of them would have expected.
The article begins with an anecdote of Junod’s own life, in which he learns about prayer and about having a special friend, much like Rogers did in the Neighborhood. It lays out Mr. Rogers’ daily routine and his philosophies on kindness and childhood. It reveals how earnest Mr. Rogers genuinely is, how he truly wanted to meet new friends, make the world a kinder place, and perhaps connect Junod to God.
It gets realer than you might expect, too. The article includes scenes of Rogers stripping off his clothes before a swim, and peeing outside after visiting the graveyard where his family members are buried. But it’s all in an effort to show exactly who Mr. Rogers is — and it seems like what you see is what you get.
In a recent article for The Atlantic, Junod reflected on writing the Esquire piece, as well as his friendship with Mr. Rogers after it was published. “I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all,” Junod wrote.
And while A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes some liberties — the character Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is based on Junod, but is not an exact representation — Junod says it brought him to tears and made him think even deeper about his relationship with Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) and how the nicest man in the world changed his life.
“In 1998, I wrote a story about Fred Rogers; in 2019, that story has turned out to be my moral lottery ticket,” Junod wrote in The Atlantic. “I’d believed that my friendship with Fred was part of my past; now I find myself in possession of a vast, unearned fortune of love and kindness at a time when love and kindness are in short supply.”