Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Warm Springs" (2005) The Trial and Reinvention of Franklin Roosevelt

Genre: Drama
President's Day in the USA was observed yesterday. It's an odd holiday to me, considering many of our past Presidents did little as Chief Executives to bother about now, unless you're a history professor or a masochist. (Take James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, the two who served between Abraham Lincoln, for instance. Those birds did little if nothing to help the nation avert or recover from the Civil War int heir respective terms ). Warren Harding and George W. Bush also could be added to the list of un-worthies in my book.

And then there are a few Presidents worth remembering.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt stands out to me as the greatest force for the general good who served in the White House in the 20th Century. (To those cynical of elected officials, this may be considered damning the guy with faint praise.) Born into privilege, and processed with the magic name of his distant cousin Theodore, Franklin Roosevelt was a quickly rising star in Democratic politics, a former New York state legislator and Assistant-Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson.

Before he was 38 he was nominated to serve as the Vice-Presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1920. He and his running mate ,James Cox, lost that race but it was just a bump in the road at the time for a young politico who could look forward to the governorship of New York and likely a direct run himself for the Presidency.

But two years later his political career seemed finished. After contracting polio while visiting a Boy Scout summer camp in upstate New York (near his family home at Hyde Park) FDR soon was unable to walk and the diagnosis left him not only physically handicapped but depressed. The naturally cheerful if elitist and somewhat snooby nature the man had carried through his life at prep school and Harvard and the halls of power was gone, a shell of a man with little to do but hide from the public on his yacht remained.

The film "Warm Springs" documents FDR's emotional resurrection at a rundown spa in rural Georgia, later to be called Warm Springs. The naturally heated water made it possible for Franklin to gain some ability to propel himself with his arms and even stand in the therapeutic pool. The experience of living near people afflicted like he was and with the rural poor of all races also deepened his empathy for ordinary people.
Once considered a "supercilious prig" by Frances Perkins (later his Labor Secretary) who couldn't abide boring people and thought of rural folks in places like Georgia as "hillbillies", FDR spend a good deal of the mid-1920's in the resort, eventually buying the facility outright with two-thirds of the money his father had left him. He turned it into a first-class treatment center that was designed exclusively to treat those afflicted with the scourge of polio (or infantile paralysis). Even today, Warm Springs exists as a center for those with mobility diseases.

Incredibly, as I found out recently, these are still places like Nigeria where new polio cases are still being diagnosed.

Although Roosevelt was originally drawn to the spa to get himself walking again, he stayed on after all hope fro that was gone and continued to support Warm Springs after he became President. Indeed, he died there of a stroke in April of 1945 while enjoying a working vacation at "The Little White House". The bulk of his life insurance policy--about 450,000 dollars--was bequeathed to the center.

The movie itself boasts an outstanding cast: Kenneth Branagh as Roosevelt, Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor, David Paymar as Louis Howe, FDR's friend and closest political advisor and Kathy Bates as Helen Mahoney, the first certified doctor at the new facility.

The film dramatizes Roosevelt not as a great figure of power, but as a man who overcomes self-pity and a physical malady to get himself back in the ring of elected office and help lead a nation in its darkest hour since the Civil War. He would not have been the leader he was without this personal trial and I believe he is one leader worth remembering on Presidents Day.

Distributed by HBO
Directed by Joseph Sargent
Produced by Chrisann Verges
Written by Margaret Nagle
Starring Kenneth Branagh
Cynthia Nixon
Kathy Bates
Tim Blake Nelson
Jane Alexander
David Paymer
Music by Bruce Broughton
Cinematography Robbie Greenberg
Editing by Michael Brown
Country United States


  1. He was one that I found to be truly a man based on merit. Some of the sayings he had. Ironically know one knew that there came a time where Eleanor came to slowly take his thoughts and carry them out within his last years. The movie seems like a decent on there Doug. As I really thought he was a very fine president second to Kennedy. Yet he and Kennedy had similar cases in a way as John was on so many medications due to his back. Yet here too is one President that does illustrate the fabric of a nation.

  2. This was a truly magnificent film; wasted on cable-alone; this could have been a theatrical release with no problems.

  3. Yes, it's true Kennedy had his own terrible health issues before and during his presidency, Jack.
    I wonder if that adversity is part of what makes some men and now women special as leaders--the increase of empathy for others, caused by sudden personal setbacks where one comes out on the other side scarred but stronger.

  4. That's exactly what I was thinking when I saw it last month, Will. So much better as a drama than many other "important" theatrical films.

  5. I somehow think the work of an able bodied President is hard enough. It was a marvellous example of mind over matter that someone can overcome their disabilities to the extent he is one of the American Presidents who stands out. I understand he had a very strong and determined wife behind him. I remember seeing an old newsreel clip of Roosevelt looking very ill indeed and still caught up in official duties.

  6. How right you are, Cassandra, especially in an era when a disability like polio was so harshly stigmatized. And yes, an able-bodied person would have a difficult time in such a job---you can really see FDR at the end of his life looking so frail by 1945 and much older than his real age (63).

    Eleanor Roosevelt was an amazing woman. She was really his "legs" as well as his eyes and ears during his long Administration, going into coal mines or farms or visiting with wounded soldiers--all the while maintaining a daily newspaper column.

    They were an incredible team. "Warm Springs" does a good job in showing how this formerly shy lady emerged into the harsh spotlight of the media and conquered it, creating a public persona for herself that was almost unprecedented among First Ladies.

  7. Doug I think it may very well have in the case of both of these leaders. They certainly still knew what they were doing and what they did within the terms as presidents were things that made for the betterment. Regardless Roosevelt was a tremendous man and leader. I remember these words which were wrote in NY and I have never forgot them Doug.

  8. Many thought Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, was the closest America got to a Royal family. Of course, there were people who blamed Roosevelt for getting America into the war. I can't see that, things were getting pretty grim in Europe and the British were trying to hold in there. I can't see the man had any choice and after Pearl Harbour, it brought home the need for swift action.

    As far as Roosevelt's health was concerned, even the end of the war didn't bring relief, there were the Nuremberg trials which went on sometime and deciding who was getting what of Germany and all the infighting going on. It took its toll on Winston Churchill, let alone Franklin D Roosevelt. They had the awful task of deciding the punishment of the many who committed war crimes. There were meetings with Stalin as well, how on earth did Roosevelt keep up, with his debilitating polio making things twice as hard. We who look back on this time, even though it is well publicised, can only know the half of it. The stress, the sheer man hours put in, then there were the private meetings. No wonder the President looked so ill.

    Indeed, Eleanor must have been many things to her husband. I remember reading that there was even a bit of rivalry between them. It has been said she was even more of a reformer than her husband, whatever, they were a good team.

    Looking back to those years, from what I have seen in programmes about that particular First Lady, she was more of a mother figure. Those who came after took on the role of a more glamorous persona. I know what I'd rather have!

    I'm ashamed to say, I haven't a clue where the name "Roosevelt" came from, it sounds Dutch to me...help...

  9. Thanks for the photo and the words Jack.

    Theodore Roosevelt had a very vigorous and straight-forward outlook on life, didn't he?

  10. Yeah he certainly did Doug, I loved this and if I recall this was within the Natural Museam of History. "Manhood" I have always loved that write back then and still now.

  11. I'll answer this later Doug, as I have to go out to eat.

    I should have said the Roosevelt was there during important meetings with meetings with Stalin.

    I think Roosevelt died the year the trials were starting.

  12. Yes, he died just a month before Germany surrendered.

    I made a mistake in my last blog. The English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, so it was actually in the time of the Second Anglo-Dutch War after the Restoration.

    The Dutch recaptured New York in 1673, and lost it again permanently by treaty a year later. The Dutch settlers were allowed their freedom, however, and religious tolerance was maintained.

  13. The English public school system shaped some wonderful characters, but I still fail to see how parents can be separated from their children while they are so young.

    I'm afraid Hitler was a liar and very clever at deceiving many people.

    I have just written a review of Harold Nicolson's war-time book. "Why Britain is at War" and he stated in it that it was a shame more statesmen didn't read Mein Kampf, in German. He reckoned that in the English translation the ranting is removed, so one gets a different impression to the original book. Winston Churchill frequently warned the country that Hitler couldn't be trusted, Churchill was an old war horse and he was a good judge of people.

    We were also ill prepared for war, but thanks to Winston's badgering he got a few influential people to see this wasn't going to be a short fight to the end.
    I have read that many people felt we had been left too long to cope on our own.

    When one speaks to the older people here, they all admire Roosevelt because he worked hard to see this country got the help it so badly needed.
    Having to deal with Stalin who wasn't a pleasant man and very demanding during the talks after the war must have taken its toll on Roosevelt.

    Talking about pro Nazis we had a few of our own countrymen who socialised with Hitler just before the war and even idolised him.

    What a position to be in, when a wife one can influence the man in power, a little word in his ear, a push in the right direction, making a difference and yet not always getting the credit.

    Hahaha, yes many families feel deprived if genealogy doesn't throw up a villain or two.

    Thank you Doug.

  14. That's one of the things about public school (or boarding school) that always puzzled me as well, Cassandra. It's hard enough for kids and parents to be separated for a few weeks in the summer, especially when they are young.

    Too many prominent Americans thought well of Hitler, or perhaps worse, that he was "a bad piece of work" but in the end a good anti-Soviet who would be satisfied once he got enough of some old German territory back. Something was "lost in translation" in that book.

    And, yes Britain stood alone all too long.

    It's noce to think of Roosevelt being well thought of in Britain. Churchill naturally is a larger-than-life figure over here. The tv series from the 80's with Robert Hardy, "Churchill: The Wilderness Years" did a good job covering the long struggle and ultimate success of his return into the government.

    I'll have to pop over and check out your review on the Nicolson book then.

    Thanks for adding so much to this blog!