Brow Beat

At the Toronto Film Festival, Being Good Is Hard Work

Mr. Rogers lost the festival’s audience award to a comedy about Hitler, but the struggle continues.

Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.
Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures Entertainment and Warner Bros.

Hitler 1, Mr. Rogers 0. That’s the score coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, from which Jojo Rabbit, a World War II satire about a young German boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, beat A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which stars Tom Hanks as the beloved TV host, for the coveted People’s Choice award. Audience awards often say more about the festival’s audience than a movie’s broader appeal: In 2018, Sundance crowds smiled on Burden, based on the true story of a reformed Ku Klux Klan member, but distributors kept their distance (the movie won’t even hit theaters until this November, nearly two years after its premiere).

Toronto’s, however, is different. With official attendance of nearly a half-million viewers, TIFF’s audience is about as broad a cross-section as you can find in the admittedly not-that-broad world of film festivals, and the People’s Choice award instantly establishes the winner as an Oscar contender. In the last 10 years, only one People’s Choice winner has failed to be nominated for Best Picture, and four of them, including last year’s Green Book, have gone on to win it.

Despite their diametrically opposed central figures, Jojo Rabbit and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood aren’t that different at heart. They’re both movies about the struggle between good and evil, and about how easy it can be to give into hatred. (Jojo, in fact, is being marketed as “an anti-hate satire,” lest anyone mistake a movie in which Hitler is played by the movie’s distinctly non-Aryan writer-director, Taika Waititi, as being pro-Nazi.) In Beautiful Day, hate threatens to consume its central character, a magazine journalist (Matthew Rhys) whose imminent fatherhood brings up feelings of anger toward his own absentee father. But not even Mr. Rogers himself is immune. When Rhys’ character refers to Rogers as a “living saint,” Rogers’ wife takes offense, echoing a point the real Joanne Rogers made to director Marielle Heller: Calling him a saint devalues how much effort Fred Rogers put into his daily practice. At the film’s premiere, Heller was already pushing back against the narrative that because Hanks is famously nice and Rogers was famously nice it must have been a breeze for the one to embody the other. Playing Mr. Rogers, like being Mr. Rogers, is hard work.

Living saints abounded elsewhere. In Just Mercy, Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, as a tireless crusader for the rights of the underrepresented, defending death row inmates in the Deep South. But while the real-life Stevenson’s achievements inspire awe, Jordan’s performance provokes only polite admiration; he’s barely a character, more like a virtue-filled vessel in the shape of a man. That goes as well for Adam Driver in The Report, in which he plays Daniel Jones, the lead Senate investigator into the CIA’s use of torture after Sept. 11, 2001. The latter, at least, seems aware its protagonist is a tough sell, and tries to turn his colorlessness into a statement about what it costs to pursue the truth: By the time he’s spent five years going over documents in a windowless bunker, Driver looks so pale he’s practically translucent. But it’s difficult to make keyword searches and paper trails dramatic—which, of course, is one of the reasons bureaucratic cover-ups are so effective in the first place.

The Report’s writer-director Scott Z. Burns also penned the script for Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, which takes a far more whimsical approach to explaining complicated systems of deceit. Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack, the masterminds (or just minds) behind the global financial fraud uncovered in the Panama Papers. But here they function as tour guides, genially addressing the camera (the latter in a comically bizarre German accent) as they walk the audience through the finer points of how the super-rich evade the law and screw the rest of us over. Meryl Streep acts as an invented sleuth, a tangential victim determined to track down the parties responsible for her husband’s death, but her dogged pursuit doesn’t give the movie much in the way of dramatic movement. It’s like a PowerPoint presentation with A-list actors.

Lauren Greenfield has spent most of her career as a documentary filmmaker chronicling the excesses of wealth and power, which made her a natural fit for The Kingmaker, a profile of Imelda Marcos. Last year’s Generation Wealth, which watched Greenfield take stock of her career while preparing for a retrospective of her photography, was such a shallow summary of her work thus far that it made me wonder if we’d been reading layers of irony into, say, The Queen of Versailles that weren’t really present in the work. And for its first half The Kingmaker seems to follow in that vein, taking the widow of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos at her word as she describes the sacrifices she made to “mother” her beloved country. But then the film starts admitting perspectives other than those of Marcos and her inner circle, and we see how the former first lady rehabilitated her image without actually repenting any of the things she’s done, including plundering the country’s wealth and possibly having a hand in the assassination of a political rival. The work is the audience’s, to assimilate one portrait of its subject and then square it with another, more damning and complicated one.

Dictatorial pasts surface in The Two Popes as well, a largely invented conversation between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), the latter of whom has been accused of complicity in Argentina’s anti-Communist purges. The movie doesn’t exonerate Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as he was then known, not even after decades of dedicating himself to the cause of global economic justice. But it does broach the question of whether it’s possible to be forgiven, whether it’s possible for actions, both material and spiritual, to outweigh the deeds of the past. Even for the pope, being good doesn’t come easy.