The Flaunting Sweetness of ‘It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood’
In the films she’s directed so far, Marielle Heller has shown a talent for creating characters who wrap you around their fingers—the middle ones, lifted to the world at large. “Defiant,” “needy,” “furious,” and “reckless” might be some of the adjectives you’d apply to Minnie in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), with her aching loins and cartoon brain, or to Lee and Jack, who drink, insult, and hoax their way through Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018). Heller’s instinct is to see situations through the eyes of these people but then step a little to the side for a parallax view, in which the damage done momentarily jumps closer to the center of the frame. Without sentimentalizing bad behavior—till now, anyway—she has remained close to her troublesome characters, encouraging your feelings toward them to verge on the warm and fuzzy.
Which is why it’s not entirely strange to find Heller going full-on cardigan zip-up in her third feature, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a fictionalized, PG adventure of Fred Rogers. Written for the screen by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, based loosely on a 1998 Esquire article by Tom Junod, Beautiful Day in effect plunks one of Heller’s difficult people into the middle of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, where the beneficiary (or victim) of this experiment confronts an unrelenting niceness that would have made Lee and Jack puke.
I’m sure the film will be best known and appreciated for Tom Hanks’s impersonation of the story’s unfailingly kind and understanding hero. (Spoiler alert: Hanks is good at this.) But the central character, in whom Heller concentrates her tartness, is Lloyd Vogel, a fictional Esquire reporter unhappily assigned to write a 400-word blurb about Mr. Rogers and flummoxed to find that this subject, alone among television’s products, is precisely as advertised.
Registering incredulity, exasperation, and mounting ire as Lloyd is Matthew Rhys, who is also good at this sort of thing. In his own long-running stint on television, in The Americans, Rhys spent much of the last two or three seasons eating his guts out in remorse and disillusionment. Here he shambles about in much the same spirit: uncombed, unshaven, draped in the sort of long raincoat that can signal trouble outside a schoolyard gate, and with a right eye badly discolored from his most recent bout of hotheadedness. Add to this that Lloyd lives in a downtown Manhattan alley, and you might say Heller makes him the human equivalent of another PBS kid-show figure, Oscar the Grouch. Beautiful Day is the story of how Fred Rogers wrestles for this man’s soul, in the gentlest way possible, and at last teaches him to get happy.
Heller takes Lloyd as her focus, but to a degree that’s uncommon for her she does not make him the governing consciousness of the movie. Keeping faith with the themes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, she instead watches Lloyd in sympathy and amusement as he loses his struggle against the unbeatable power of corniness. The movie’s best scenes win you over by flaunting their sweetness, as when the passengers in a New York subway car recognize Fred Rogers and spontaneously break into his theme song. The whole democratic polis joins in—middle-school kids, cops, some burly guy in a watch cap, and a delighted Rogers himself—all except Lloyd, of course, whose embarrassment grips him like gastric distress. You feel bad for him; but you also get a touch of the pleasure reserved for the blessed in heaven, as they watch the damned writhe in hell.
Since Heller plays moments such as these more for humor than insight, you’re free to enjoy the considerable lift they give your spirit. When you get to the big reconciliation scene, though, the one toward which all moments in the film converge, you might want to ponder not the state of Lloyd’s soul, but Heller’s.
Having risen in the night to feed a bottle to his infant son, Lloyd is distracted by the voice of his father (Chris Cooper), a ne’er-do-well trying to make amends at the end of his life, who calls out from the adjacent sickroom. Heller, too, seems distracted by the call. First, she neglects to have Lloyd pick up the bottle when he comes from the kitchen; she simply makes it materialize in the next room. Then she allows Lloyd to get so caught up in redemptive conversation with his father that he puts the baby down to sleep in the carrier, unfed. Flimsiness betrays flimsiness; the gaps in direction read almost like Heller’s confession of the falsehood of the scene’s emotional breakthrough, its essence as wish fulfillment.
This isn’t to say that I’m disappointed in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Any movie that ends with a little plastic hearse driving up to a toy cemetery has done well enough for me. But I’m worried for Heller. She is part of a too-small cadre of women directors working their way up in the business and has now shown the first sign of compromise. It’s not a terrible one, and I think she must be fully aware of what she’s done. (There are moments in A Beautiful Day when she all but footnotes the deeper, thornier material in Morgan Neville’s moving 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) Still, I wonder if a kind but firm-minded person, with or without a cardigan, might sit down with Heller to ask, “How did this job make you feel?”
When I turn from Heller to Todd Haynes and his new film, Dark Waters, one abiding lesson of film history comes home: Compromise is not always bad. The substantially true story of Cincinnati-based attorney Rob Bilott and his years-long struggle against DuPont—first to discover, and comprehend, that the chemical company had poisoned a vast population, and then to force some small level of restitution—Dark Waters began as a project of its star, Mark Ruffalo, who learned about Bilott through a New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich. Ruffalo and the production company Participant commissioned Matthew Michael Carnahan to turn Rich’s article into a screenplay and only then acted on the less-than-obvious inspiration to recruit Haynes to direct.
Haynes has dealt with the subject of environmental toxins before, in Safe (1995). Many people think of that film as strong and even trailblazing, but it’s also a picture that would make the young man in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite exclaim, “It’s so metaphorical!” A genre-bender and intellectual gamesman who puts his faith in the substance of style, Haynes is as much a production designer as a director. He also likes to write his own scripts, which have tended to wrap quotation marks around “reality.” By bringing Dark Waters to Haynes, Ruffalo and Participant asked him to break with his ingrained practice: to make clear, credible exposition his priority and shoot from the heart in Ohio and West Virginia, on actual locations, instead of in his visions of older movies.
To his credit, and theirs, Haynes agreed enthusiastically. With the help of a screenplay revision by Mario Correa and the assistance of his favorite cinematographer, Ed Lachman, he has made Dark Waters a direct, compelling, and damning procedural drama, one that respects the emotional ordeal of Rob Bilott as much as it builds the case against the managers of DuPont.
Perhaps the first thing you notice about Dark Waters is not the compromise Haynes has willingly made in his style but the self-sacrifice Ruffalo has endured in his movie-star image. Dialing his charisma down even lower than he did in Spotlight, Ruffalo wears his hair in a dorky flop, pads his face toward pudgy unrecognizability, hunches meekly in many of his scenes, and allows other actors to tower over him—not only the immense Tim Robbins as managing partner of the corporate law firm where Bilott works, but also Anne Hathaway as Bilott’s pious and sometimes impatient wife, Sarah. The portrait that emerges is of a man who is very smart—he has just made partner at Taft Law when the story begins—but also socially awkward, emotionally insecure, and forever hoping to escape the stigma of his origins in small-town West Virginia. It’s a nightmare come true when a lumbering, baseball-capped farmer from back home (Bill Camp) shows up at the office without an appointment, to bellow with more vowels than consonants that he needs Bilott to examine the evidence of malfeasance he’s carrying around in a cardboard box.
As Bilott’s investigation gets tentatively, almost apologetically under way, so do subtle signs of Haynes’s meticulous care as a director. Without drawing attention to what he’s doing, he repeatedly positions the camera above his low-status hero. Even in the many scenes of Bilott driving, you peer down at him through the windshield. Meanwhile, Haynes and Lachman put as many sheets of glass as possible on the screen, along with their reflections, turning Dark Waters into a visual essay on transparency and its absence. The film’s world lacks sunshine—literally. At all hours of the day, scenes at the afflicted farm in West Virginia have the colors of winter twilight.
Without being at all intrusive, these artful touches punch up the moments that give Dark Waters its life: the faithfully messy scenes where Bilott and his wife come clean with each other; the passages through modest neighborhoods, decaying streets, and rural back roads, observed precisely and without condescension; the horror–movie revelations, sometimes on grainy video, of medical and veterinary anomalies. Maybe this all sounds standard for a whistleblower picture, right down to the sequence where Bilott shuts himself in a room to dig through dusty, disorganized heaps of evidence.
But take a look, for contrast, at another real-life tale about an obsessed whistleblower pursuing his lonely quest over the years: Scott Z. Burns’s The Report. I should say at once that The Report takes a worthy place among the other fictionalized exposés Burns has made, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his frequent partner, Steven Soderbergh. He’s taken on the nuclear industry in Pu-239; agribusiness in The Informant!; the intersection of environmental degradation and epidemic illness in Contagion; and shadowy international finance in The Laundromat. With The Report, which he wrote, directed, and produced, Burns brings to light the CIA’s adoption of torture as standard procedure following the 9/11 attacks, and the determined efforts of both the Bush and Obama administrations to keep this information out of the public record. In other words, thank you, Scott Burns. But now, let’s examine the details.
The Report is essentially the story of a man who sits in a fluorescent-lit, underground office, typing on a computer. This is Daniel J. Jones, the former FBI analyst who served as a staffer to Senator Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for which he researched and wrote a massive history of CIA torture that emerged in 2014 only as an executive summary, at a mere 525 pages. How to make this labor appeal to an audience? Burns relies on star casting, justified by Jones’s reputation as a dashing fellow, and puts lanky, smoldering Adam Driver in the lead. Unlike Ruffalo in Dark Waters, Driver uses every charm he’s got in The Report, including many opportunities to shout in righteous indignation. Abetted by Annette Bening in the role of Dianne Feinstein, this resourceful, thoroughly likable actor does everything he can to keep you emotionally engaged while leading you through the story’s maze.
But more is needed. Burns really grabs you only when the horror becomes vivid, during flashbacks to tortures conducted by James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (a blustering Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith), psychologists who sold their nonexistent expertise to the CIA at the cost of $81 million and multiple lives. Burns also gets himself going when he swipes at Kathryn Bigelow and Marc Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty—one notable item in a campaign to bamboozle the public into thinking that torture had produced uniquely valuable information and was therefore, under the terms of John Yoo’s notorious legal finding, not inherently criminal.
I’m deeply glad that film culture now has an anti-Zero Dark Thirty. I just wish Burns’s reliably brusque style had worked better for the story he chose. The Report feels like something you have a duty to see, or (better still) recommend to a Fox News–watching uncle. Dark Waters is similarly obsessive, but it’s a whistleblower movie you want to see.
For sheer entertainment, though, there is little now in the theaters that tops James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari. Granted, it has the psychological complexity of a baseball card, and its theme of he-man individualists defying corporate bureaucrats will not rock your world. It also feels twenty minutes too long, which is a problem for a movie about speed. Mangold might have remedied the fault just by cutting his repetitive views of a tachometer needle edging toward 7,000 and a foot stomping the clutch.
On the other hand, Ford v Ferrari features Christian Bale doing wonders as race-car driver Ken Miles. You get the lean, hollow-cheeked Bale this time, who just by tilting his head one way or the other can seem amused, curious, satirical, or royally pissed off. Matt Damon is equally good as former driver and race-car designer Carroll Shelby, who (strangely enough) is as devoid of a personal life in this telling as Miles is richly endowed with a wife and son. Why Mangold and his writers made that choice, I don’t know. They make up for it, though, with Phedon Papamichael’s wildly kinetic cinematography and a turn by Tracy Letts as a bloated, overbearing, cries-like-a-baby Henry Ford II. Good, clean fun.