'Warm Springs' Illuminates The Hard-Won Victory of FDR

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005

Remember Kenneth Branagh, British actor, director and writer -- and, for all we know, doctor, lawyer and Indian chief? It was said the man could do anything. Well, he can't play FDR -- or so it seems for about the first half-hour of "Warm Springs," an HBO movie premiering tonight at 8.

And yet, funny thing: Even if Branagh never "becomes" FDR in the fullest and most satisfying sense, his performance takes hold of your imagination and makes the misgivings almost irrelevant. He gives us an affectingly grand and robust portrait of American heroism and of a man who almost missed his date with destiny because his body failed him.

When it failed, it threatened to take FDR's spirit with it. He was a rising young star on the political scene in the early 1920s when fate dealt him a crippling blow: polio, which robbed him of his physical strength and his ability to walk. Like any mortal, heroic or not, he considered throwing in the towel and abandoning what had promised to be a very public life.

His country needed him, needed him so much that he would eventually be elected president four times. He might have stayed in the White House even longer, but "this too, too solid flesh" turned out to be not solid enough. Even so, FDR looks in retrospect like the 20th century's Lincoln, a man who saved the country from collapse during the Great Depression and helped save the world from going to hell in World War II.

As the film opens, it's "On Golden Lake." Branagh, as an older FDR, pops out of the water -- suddenly, as if to make us jump in our seats the way the shark from "Jaws" did. Lifting himself onto the pier, he sticks a cigarette in that trademark holder of his and sits back to reminisce for the next two hours.

What no one needs is another "Sunrise at Campobello," the sentimental play about FDR, his wife and times that covered some of the same material but with suffocating nobility. The Broadway production was such a hit that it was filmed virtually intact, like a stage play -- static and stuffy. But in keeping with the times, "Warm Springs," by Margaret Nagle, is much edgier, and FDR is portrayed not as a one-dimensional living statue but as a restless, ambitious and sometimes bitterly frustrated man with one of the greatest support groups of all time to supplement his awesome inner strength.

Jane Alexander -- who has played Eleanor at least once in her long career -- is on the scene, but, ironically, this time as FDR's snobbish and haughty mother, while Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" portrays a shy, gawky younger Eleanor, who is just learning to be assertive -- but she's a quick learner.

Branagh, under the direction of Joseph Sargent, shows us how naturally FDR took to politics and how the word "politician" can have some joy about it. It is, after all, the art of loving people. Posing with Boy Scouts at their summer camp before he's stricken, Roosevelt is every inch the politico, a man who wants to play a major role in his times and be a hero to people born silver-spoonless. But romping with children like a kid himself, FDR suddenly falls to the ground, pained and pale. The doctor's diagnosis is one word, then horrifying: "Polio."

There might be no more story if not for an invitation FDR receives from George Foster Peabody, the philanthropist who founded the Peabody Awards in broadcasting (and this film is a good candidate to receive one). Peabody suggests FDR visit Warm Springs, Ga., where mineral water bubbles out of the ground at a therapeutic 90 degrees or so.

Throughout the film, we see FDR not as a Saint Franklin but as a man with flaws, doubts and vulnerabilities. He is deeply embittered about having been "selected" to suffer from a debilitating disease, but the small group of afflicted people he encounters at Warm Springs becomes a community and FDR their de facto president. We can't expect Branagh to do an impersonation or caricature, meanwhile, and yet his limitations in the role do hamper the film. He has the wrong body type, he doesn't tilt his head at the right angle, his smile never seems as wily, and so on.

Kathy Bates arrives halfway through the story as Helena Mahoney, a physical therapist who provides plenty of psychological therapy, too. The movie builds toward a climax: FDR is to nominate Al Smith as the presidential candidate at the Democratic convention. His real challenge will be "walking" to the lectern as if he really can walk -- his feet in braces and his son Elliott close by his side to help sustain the illusion of mobility.

Smith, listening on the radio, is at first concerned about FDR's tumultuous reception but then asks, "Why am I worried? He'll be dead in a year."


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company