Would Franklin Delano Roosevelt have become president at all, let alone a four-termer, had he not contracted polio?
Warm Springs, a new Home Box Office biopic, makes the case that FDR needed the humbling experience to jolt himself from his world of patrician comfort and into contact with real people with real needs. As portrayed in this movie, he was a womanizing dilettante when healthy, out of touch with Middle America as well as his life partner, Eleanor.
This story begins prior to his affliction. FDR (Kenneth Branagh) is driven by his era’s Karl Rove, campaign consultant Louis Howe (David Paymer) to keep himself in the limelight in order to advance politically. Howe is also concerned about the affair FDR is having under his own roof. FDR wants to divorce Eleanor (Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, uglied up with bad dentures), but is forbidden by matriarch Sara (Jane Alexander).
Then the blow: He’s paralyzed by polio at the age of 39 and flees his family. Eventually he’s lured to Bullochville, Ga., for therapy in the mineral springs.
FDR isn’t really galvanized — doesn’t really become part of a community — until he witnesses a young boy nearly killed by railroad personnel who lock him in a baggage car for two days of transport, out of fear of infection. That’s when viewers espy the first glimmer of the great man FDR is to become: One who spends his personal fortune to create Warm Springs and works toward getting the medical establishment to support rehabilitation advances.
The primary casting doesn’t really work — only the cigarette holder and pince nez reminded you that Branagh is FDR; Nixon is too pretty, frankly, for Eleanor; and Kathy Bates, playing a physical therapist, receives no character development. But the tale is so compelling, especially with secondary storylines acknowledging the needs of the handicapped, that the film ultimately proves fascinating.
Tim Blake Nelson as former newspaperman Tom Loyless, who heads the spa, plays the most well-rounded role. He’s instrumental in shaking FDR out of his arrogance and denial.
Kudos also go to writer Margaret Nagle, writing her first screenplay; and director Joseph Sargent (Something the Lord Made).
Warm Springs debuts on HBO on April 30 at 8 p.m. (ET).