Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
The movie is framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks), tells us the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is a cynical reporter assigned to do a piece on Mr. Rogers. Lloyd’s father Jerry (Chris Cooper) abandoned him as a child and keeps trying to reconnect, by Lloyd rejects him. Lloyd goes to interview Mr. Rogers and is shocked by his kindness, and the two form a bond. Eventually, Lloyd is able to work through his anger and forgive his father, taking care of him when he goes into heart failure until he dies. Mr. Rogers says goodbye to the audience, walks off the set, and plays the piano.
In 1998, Lloyd Vogel, an award-winning but cynical Esquire journalist, attends his sister Lorraine’s wedding, along with his wife, Andrea, and their newborn son, Gavin. During the reception, Lloyd starts a fistfight with his estranged father, Jerry, over memories of Lloyd’s mother, whom Jerry abandoned. The next day, Lloyd’s editor assigns him to interview Fred Rogers for a 400-word article about heroes, as each of the other potential heroes turned down chances to be interviewed by him. Lloyd travels to the WQED studio in Pittsburgh to interview Rogers. During the interview, Rogers is dismissive of his fame and displays concern for Lloyd’s nose injury, prompting a discussion in which Lloyd relates to Rogers the issue of his relationship with his father, whose apology and attempt at reconciliation Lloyd has rebuffed.
Determined to expose Rogers’ nice persona as an act, Lloyd watches several episodes of Rogers’ show, but is unable to discern anything. Lloyd interviews Rogers again when he visits New York. During the interview, Rogers dodges Lloyd’s questions and reminisces about raising his two sons. Fred takes out his puppets and asks Lloyd about his childhood rabbit stuffed animal and his father, provoking Lloyd into ending the interview. Lloyd arrives home to find Jerry and his girlfriend Dorothy there talking with Andrea. Lloyd berates Jerry for cheating on his mother Lila while she was dying of cancer. He orders him to leave, but Jerry suffers a heart attack and is transported to the hospital. Lloyd refuses to remain overnight at the hospital with the rest of the family and returns to Pittsburgh to see Rogers. Exhausted, Lloyd collapses on the set of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and dreams about his repressed childhood trauma. In his dream, he stumbles into an episode of Rogers’ show about hospitals, finding himself wearing rabbit ears and shrunken to the size of Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII, while Rogers and Andrea tower over him. He visits Lila, who is dying and urges him to release his anger.
Rogers and his wife, Joanne, bring Lloyd to their home to recuperate. Lloyd and Rogers later go to a restaurant, where Rogers asks Lloyd to spend one minute thinking about the people who “loved him into being,” and encourages him to forgive Jerry. Lloyd apologizes to Andrea for leaving her and Gavin at the hospital, and visits Jerry and Dorothy at their home. He learns that Jerry is dying of a prolonged illness, the reason Jerry attempted to reconnect with Lloyd. Lloyd forgives Jerry, promises to be a better father to Gavin, and writes an article about Rogers’ impact on his life. Lorraine, her husband Todd, and Rogers visit Jerry. Rogers asks Jerry to pray for him before he departs. Jerry dies shortly after Rogers’ visit and Lloyd’s 10,000 word article, titled “Can You Say … Hero?”, is published as Esquire’s cover story.
At his studio, Rogers films the final take of an episode of his show before playing the piano to signify the end of another day of production.
The film opens as one large episode of the Mr. Rogers show – Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) talks directly to the audience, welcoming us and sings “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. He shows us pictures of some of his friends, and finally shows us a picture of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) – it’s a picture of him looking anguished with a bloody nose. He explains that Lloyd had a lot of anger and had to learn about forgiveness.
In 1998, Lloyd is an accredited investigative journalist who has just had his first baby with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). As they get ready for Lloyd’s sister Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard)’s wedding, Andrea tells Lloyd that his father will be there. He is angry but attends anyway and sees his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who has not seen in years. Jerry corners him into talking and brings up Lloyd’s mother, and Lloyd hits him – other wedding attendees get involved, and wine gets spilled all over Lorraine’s wedding dress and someone punches Lloyd in the face, and he becomes the picture Mr. Rogers showed the audience at the start.
His editor Ellen (Christine Lahti) assigns him a profile for their upcoming issue on heroes: Mr. Rogers. Lloyd has no interest, but she tells him that no other subject would agree to be interviewed by him: most of his pieces are takedowns of their subjects. When he gets home, Jerry is waiting outside his apartment to talk to him. He ignores Jerry, who waits outside his apartment for two days before giving up.
Lloyd leaves for Philadelphia leaving Andrea home with the baby. He meets Bill Eisler (Enrico Colantoni), the president of Mr. Rogers production company, who is suspicious of him, having read his pieces. Finally he meets Mr. Rogers, who is incredibly kind to him. Lloyd keeps looking for what the catch is, but can’t find it. Mr. Rogers asks how he hurt his eye, and when Lloyd tells him about the fight with his father, Mr. Rogers is sincerely concerned for him. An associate cuts their interview short and Lloyd returns home.
Shortly after, Mr. Rogers is in New York and invites Lloyd to spend the day with him. He meets Mrs. Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett), who again tells him there’s no catch with Mr. Rogers. Lloyd and Mr. Rogers take the subway where the people of New York begin singing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. At Mr. Rogers’s apartment, Lloyd keeps asking him tough questions trying to peel back his layers. But Mr. Rogers deflects and takes out his puppets and ends up finding more about Lloyd’s childhood – about how his mother died when he was young and how he also had a special toy named “Old Rabbit”. Mr. Rogers asks about his father, and Lloyd becomes upset and defensive and leaves.
When he gets home, Jerry and his long-term girlfriend Dorothy (Wendy Makenna) are there making dinner with Andrea. Lloyd wants them to leave, and he and Jerry get into a shooting match because Lloyd can’t forgive Jerry for cheating on and abandoning his mother and their family while his mother was dying. Jerry pleadingly apologizes and then has a heart attack. At the hospital, the family finds out Jerry is dying and does not have much time left. Lloyd hates hospitals since his mother died and decides to leave to go back to Philadelphia – Andrea is angry at him for abandoning his family and tells him to stay, but he goes anyway.
In Philadelphia, Lloyd passes out from exhaustion and has a dream where he is the puppet Old Rabbit in King Friday’s kingdom instead of Daniel Tiger, and Andrea is Lady Aberlin. He then sees his mother on her deathbed and she tells him he doesn’t need to hold onto anger for her. He wakes up at the Rogers home to find Mr. and Mrs. Rogers playing piano. Mr. Rogers takes him to lunch. During the conversation, he tells Lloyd to take one minute of silence to think of all the people who loved him into being. Then looks out at us, the audience, so we can as well.
He returns home and apologizes to Andrea and tells her how scared he is and how much he needs her. They move into Jerry’s home to take care of him while he’s dying. Jerry and Lloyd are able to make peace, and Lloyd writes a massive article about Mr. Rogers that becomes the cover of Esquire. During the holidays, the whole extended Vogel family is celebrating when Mr. Rogers comes by to visit. Lorraine and her husband are shocked. Mr. Rogers is thrilled to meet them all, and before leaving whispers to Jerry to pray for him. Lloyd asks why, and Mr. Rogers tells him that Jerry must be close to god right now. Jerry dies shortly after, and Lloyd tells Andrea he’s going to take some time off so she can go back to work.
Mr. Rogers ends the episode of his show, says goodbye to us, and leaves the set to watch the playback. As the lights shut off in the studio, he sits and plays the piano.