Branagh Portrays Private Side of FDR
Pittsburgh Tribune, 24 April 2005
HBO finds success by using a simple formula for its original movies. First, develop a solid script, which actually tells a story that touches on several emotional levels. Second, assemble a stellar cast that believe in acting instead of being movie stars. Third, hire a director who knows how to guide -- but not get in the way of -- the actors and story.
That formula is successful is once again for the original movie "Warm Springs." The story centers on a pivotal time in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life. Before he becomes president, Roosevelt is struck by polio, an illness that terrifies people. In the early part of the 20th century, polio dredges up the same fears and loathing that AIDS does in the 1980s. No one understands the disease. Many think it is a punishment from God for a sinful life.
"Warm Springs" follows Roosevelt as he is paralyzed from the waist down and falls into a depression and anger that threatens his political future. Roosevelt's savior is Tom Loyless, a former reporter whose anti-racist views make him a target of the Ku Klux Klan. Loyless is forced to become the proprietor of a backwoods spa in rural Georgia. The spa's pools contain magnesium-rich water which is beneficial to rehabilitating paralyzed limbs. On a whim, Roosevelt decides to visit the spa, desperate for anything that may help him walk again.
Roosevelt is surprised by what he finds. The inn is a shambles, the grounds are unkempt and the staff is small. He wants to leave, but the hope for a cure keeps him there. It is a decision that changes his life.
Before his illness, Roosevelt is well known in politics and serves as Secretary of the Navy. But he loses a bid for vice president and his marriage is crumbling because of an affair with his wife's secretary. FDR is a rich boy, full of pretensions and selfishness. He espouses to belong to the Democratic Party without fully understanding what it stands for.
"The Democratic Party is the party of the people," he says. "I am a man of the people." But it takes polio and his work at Warm Springs to teach him just what that means. Over time, Roosevelt learns how to give. He learns to listen to and help others. He fights prejudice and ignorance against polio victims. His desire to help others with the disease leads him to buy Warm Springs and convert it to a polio rehabilitation and treatment center, which it continues to be today.
British actor Kenneth Branagh offers an incredible performance as Roosevelt. Branagh is no stranger to quality acting. He has been nominated for an Academy Award four times and won the 2001 Emmy for his role in HBO's "Conspiracy." His performance is genuine without becoming a caricature of such a well-known figure. Branagh's portrayal reveals the private side of Roosevelt that not many know -- flashing philandering looks at other women, being a sloppy drunk or acting like an angry child. Branagh absorbs the pain and confusion of a man trying to find himself again.
Cynthia Nixon, an Emmy winner for HBO's "Sex and the City," dons matronly dresses to portray Eleanor Roosevelt. She sports the familiar voice, but does not go overboard with her imitation. She portrays Eleanor as a wonderful mother and wife, who is placed in the impossible position of serving her husband's career and pleasing a domineering mother-in-law. Nixon conveys Eleanor's spirit with a simple look, especially when she finds a love letter from Roosevelt's mistress.
The rest of the cast is just as notable for their acting work. Oscar winner Kathy Bates ("Misery") portrays a physical therapist who helps Roosevelt to use his legs and keep his spirit. Jane Alexander, who portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt in two previous movies, offers a formidable presence as Roosevelt's mother, Sara. David Paymer maintains his put-upon best-buddy persona for the role of Louis Howe, who guided Roosevelt's political career.
Director Joseph Sargent has a proven track record of delivering quality. His previous HBO movies -- "Something the Lord Made," "A Lesson Before Dying" and "Miss Evers' Boys -- all won Emmy Awards for best TV movie.
"Warm Springs" goes beyond a typical history lesson about a former president to provide an uncompromising look at a man overcoming hardship to redefine his life.