HBO's 'Warm Springs' Shows How Adversity Shaped FDR
Salt Lake Tribune, 28 April 2005
It may seem odd that in the course of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's history - the Great Depression, World War II, The New Deal programs - the HBO film "Warm Springs" would focus on a time before all that, before he was the 32nd president of the United States.
But the movie's timeline - Roosevelt's early struggles with polio in the 1920s - covers years that the film posits may have defined the man, his compassion and possibly his presidency.
This moving and intelligent made-for-TV film, starring Kenneth Branagh as FDR and premiering Saturday at 9:30 p.m., explores a period that may be unknown to many people, and it sheds more light on a time when struggling with the disease developed Roosevelt's character.
The president's granddaughter Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the co-chair of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, said her grandmother was always fond of saying, "FDR was not great in spite of his disability, he was great because of his disability." "Warm Springs" illustrates this well.
By the time FDR contracted polio, he was already a failed vice-presidential candidate whose star was still rising in Washington. Paralyzed from the waist down and steeped in doubt and depression, Roosevelt distanced himself from his family and politics by living in seclusion on a boat.
But hope emerged. He learned of an inn in rural Georgia where warm spring pools contained special mineral properties rumored to be a natural cure for the disease.
So FDR, brilliantly portrayed by Branagh as a bitter, arrogant and sometimes snobbish man at the beginning of the film, moves to the dilapidated building to begin the warm-water therapy. Soon, others afflicted with the disease arrive after a newspaper article is published about his progress.
Roosevelt's work with the people at the inn, which he eventually buys and turns into a rehabilitation center, keeps him away from his family. So Eleanor (played by "Sex and the City's" Cynthia Nixon with a set of horrendous dentures) becomes politically active to keep her husband's name alive.
There have been many sterling portrayals of FDR in film and television, most notably Edward Herrmann's noble turn in the miniseries "Eleanor and Franklin." What Branagh brings to this movie is a portrayal of not just the man's intelligence, but the charisma and spark that could be seen in the real president. Kathy Bates is equally good as a physical therapist who works with Roosevelt. It's a particular joy to watch these two acting giants working together in a scene.
Veteran director Joseph Sargent and writer Margaret Nagle have crafted a historical drama that gives us a unique perspective on FDR: It sets aside politics and intrigue to give us a never-before-seen portrait of a man who turned tragedy into triumph.