Jonathan Downard photograph

Warm Springs Movie Review

July 2005

I, like many of my generation, am fairly unfamiliar with the life and exploits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like many other great men of a history that predates my birth, he exists in my mind as a larger-than-life figure of a bygone era and "the Great Generation." Not having lived to see any part of him, he is a crippled superhero, no more real to me than George Washington the Cherry Tree Killer or King Richard the Lionhearted. HBO's new film, Warm Springs, did a marvelous job of changing that for me.

Starring Kenneth Branagh as F.D.R. and Cythia Nixon as Eleanor, this biographical drama begins with Roosevelt as the pampered, rich socialite having one of his many affairs, this time with his wife's personal assistant. His habits are his weakness, and the smooth-talking politician becomes adept at kissing babies, etc. Eleanor is portrayed during this period as little more than a spoiled housewife who is somewhat oblivious to the true nature of her husband, and her own power. When she finds notes addressed to him from her assistant, she becomes withdrawn and edgy after confronting him. The two struggle to cope with their marriage in light of a threat to be cut off from the family fortunes in the event of divorce.

One afternoon, thirty-nine-year-old Roosevelt is climbing the stairs after arguing with his family and falls. He finds himself unable to regain his legs, and is soon diagnosed with polio. After much time in bed, he travels away from family and friends, hiding out on a fishing boat and hoping to die in a hurricane. He then reads about Warm Springs, a resort area with mineral water pools in Georgia. A partial paraplegic had been able to take some steps in the warm water. Roosevelt takes the trip and sets up residence there.

He soon finds that the warm mineral water gives a person greater buoyancy. He enlists the aid of a free-thinking doctor (Kathy Bates), who helps him to take a few steps in the water. His mind and life are forever changed by the plight of the locals and polio sufferers from all over, and he begins a personal transformation that makes him a man concerned with helping others more than himself. He buys the resort and turns it into the leading polio research and treatment facility in the world. He battles with his own issues, and realizes that, of all the patients at his facility, he is the only one whose condition isn't improving. He struggles to cope with depression, self-loathing, and learning to live as a cripple.

Meanwhile, Eleanor begins to occupy herself with humanitarian exploits and overcomes her fears of public speaking. After some time and accomplishment of her own, she forces her way back into Roosevelt's daily life and becomes a part of his mission to help the world beat polio. They reconcile their marriage, and with the help of their support group and children, become the premier political powerhouse team of their era. She helps him get over his idea of needing legs to "run for office."

The real hook to this movie is the realism and the touching conversion of rich do-littles into concerned, emotionally mature humanitarians. The truth can sometimes be difficult to separate from the dramatic license in films like this, but this story is very touching and absorbing. The viewer gets to experience all of the heartbreak and triumph and charm of these two overcoming the worst part of their lives. Branagh's British accent is perfectly hidden in this movie, quite an improvement from the John Grisham picture he did. Nixon and Bates deliver first-rate, no-nonsense acting; and when Roosevelt obtains a car with hand controls, wins over the scientific community with his doctors' polio research, and is held up by his eldest son at the convention, you get all the redemption and humility through the power of Branagh's performance. This movie illustrates how much a person can overcome through struggle and commitment. Well written, well acted, and well directed, this movie is comparable in quality to Malcolm X or Ghandi.

copyright 2005, Jonathan Downard

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