Body & Soul
Kenneth Branagh Inhabits the Role of FDR Like No Actor Before Him
Newsday, 24 April 2005
Someone asked me recently if I thought Franklin Delano Roosevelt could be elected president today given the different demands of the TV age. Would he be photogenic enough? Would his accent and speaking style play with modern voters?
I honestly don't know, but I suspect actor Kenneth Branagh, doing the FDR impersonation he does in HBO's "Warm Springs," could give most any current Republican or Democrat a tough race.
Branagh is astonishing in the role. Roosevelt has been played well before - by Ralph Bellamy in the 1960 movie "Sunrise at Campobello" and by Edward Herrmann in the celebrated 1976 TV miniseries "Eleanor and Franklin" - but never has an actor so effectively channeled his magnetic energy. When we see Branagh's FDR early in the HBO film in a re-created black-and-white newsreel, he radiates electricity like a dynamo.
But "Warm Springs" focuses primarily on the four-term president (1933-45) who almost wasn't. Much of the content will probably be news to all but most serious history buffs. We've not seen FDR like this. Photos from the period depicted were destroyed by the State Department in the name of national security.
The first glimpse that screenwriter Margaret Nagle and director Joseph Sargent give us is Roosevelt being hoisted out of the ocean after his morning dip like a netted fish. His attendants untangle him. His legs are as lifeless as rubber hoses.
It's 1924. Three years earlier, the aristocratic New Yorker - cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy and Democratic vice-presidential nominee - had contracted the dreaded, little-understood disease polio. Now a paraplegic, he is living on a houseboat in Florida in bitter, self-imposed exile from his wife, his family and a destiny he no longer believes will be his.
His longtime political adviser, Louis Howe (David Paymer), arrives one day with news of another polio victim, a boy, who regained some use of his legs after exercising in the warm, mineral-rich waters of a spa in the backwoods of Georgia.
Roosevelt's already evident snobbery is magnified when he and his wife, Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon), are driven past hardscrabble farms and groveling shacks to the peeling Meriwether Inn in Warm Springs. He literally turns up his nose. "I can't stay here," he tells manager Tom Loyless (Tim Blake Nelson). "This place is a wreck."
"Yes, we've seen better days," replies Loyless, an ex-newspaperman of comparable bluntness. "But then, I imagine, so have you."
"Warm Springs" is a splendid example of a TV movie staple, the triumph-over-adversity drama. Its uplift quotient is enhanced by its honesty about Roosevelt's doubts and dark nights on the way to coming to terms with his condition.
The movie is also much-needed social history for the young and the forgetful. It re-creates a time when there was no safety net save charity and when people recoiled from polio victims, even blue-blooded ones, as though they were lepers.
The central idea of Nagle's script - hardly accidental, I suspect, at a time when the worth of Roosevelt-era government programs such as Social Security is being challenged - is that his experiences at Warm Springs humbled him, heightened his empathy for people less fortunate and made him a better man and more electable candidate.
There's a parallel story line about shy, mousy Eleanor's blossoming into a confident public speaker and social advocate, a transformation begun in the movie when she discovers Franklin's affair with her social secretary and completed during the period when he was off drinking and feeling sorry for himself in Florida. Nixon is no Jane Alexander, who defined the role of Eleanor in two "Eleanor and Franklin" miniseries (and who registers strongly in "Warm Springs" as Franklin's mother, the imperious Sara Delano Roosevelt). But the former "Sex and the City" co-star does affectingly embody the future first lady's growing strength and stature.
There are other strong performances, including Paymer, Nelson and Kathy Bates, who plays physical therapist Helena Mahoney. But the movie belongs to Branagh. The expression on his FDR's face the first time he takes a few steps in the buoyant springs water is reason enough to start engraving his best actor Emmy.