Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is plenty afraid of fear itself.
The greatest challenge FDR faced was the one we never saw.
Warm Springs is the rarest of beasts: an excellent biopic. By limiting itself to a lesser-known four-year period in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life, it manages to be thematically focused and dramatically compelling, while staying more or less true to history. It also credits its audience with intelligence by assuming we're familiar enough with American history of the last century that we don't need to connect the events at Warm Springs with the man, the leader, and the president that FDR would become.
Facts of the Case
The picture opens near the end of 1920 as Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox and his running mate Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kenneth Branagh, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) have been soundly thrashed by president-elect Warren G. Harding. Despite having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for the Wilson administration, Roosevelt—whose powerful family wields enormous influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties—has a reputation as a blue-blooded, largely substanceless professional politician. During the summer of 1921, as FDR and his closest political advisor, Louis Howe (David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night), consider the next step in Roosevelt's political career, he is stricken with polio while vacationing in New Brunswick. The illness leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.
Just as he's on the edge of despair, FDR receives an invitation from one Tom Loyless (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to visit Warm Springs, Georgia. The little town's natural mineral springs are said to have recuperative powers. He accepts the invitation against the wishes of both his mother (Jane Alexander, All the President's Men) and wife, Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City), and moves down south. It turns out Loyless's resort is a dilapidated mess, and that he and his staff are barely getting by financially. But a newspaper report of Roosevelt's stay at the resort garners the place national attention. Soon, people are visiting from all over America—both the healthy and the infirm.
Assuming that his political career is over, FDR makes plans to buy the Warm Springs resort with his entire trust fund, and renovate it in order to help those stricken with polio. In order to give the place medical legitimacy, he hires Helena Maloney (Kathy Bates, Misery), an orthopedic nurse, to monitor the progress of the patients. Meanwhile, Howe is working hard to keep Roosevelt's name on the political forefront. He's also taken up a second project: helping Eleanor to blossom into a dynamic public speaker. Howe succeeds in securing FDR the coveted spot of delivering the speech nominating Alfred E. Smith at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. But will Roosevelt be ready, physically and psychologically, to deliver the kind of memorable speech that will relaunch his political career, or will he be overcome by fear, self-doubt, and his physical disability?
On the surface Warm Springs may be about Roosevelt's struggle to deal with polio. But it's really concerned with the forces that transformed him from a self-centered dilettante from a family of privilege to the man who led America through the Great Depression and World War II, and who orchestrated the New Deal. Shot on location in Warm Springs, Georgia, the best scenes of the movie are those that bring the sheltered FDR face to face with poverty and deprivation. These sequences are characterized by a vital humanity and naturalism that prevents them from coming off as socialist preaching or political soap boxing on the part of first-time screenwriter Margaret Nagle. With the exception of a single overwritten scene at the end in which FDR is seen off to the Democratic National Convention by his friends and fellow polio sufferers at Warm Springs, the picture favors subtle drama over message or sentimentality.
The fine script is bolstered by equally fine performances by the entire cast. In becoming FDR, Kenneth Branagh doesn't do much more than adopt pince-nez, a cigarette holder, and a Northeastern American accent. But by crafting a performance based on emotional realism rather than the imitation of Roosevelt's mannerisms, Branagh only strengthens the film's power. His FDR isn't a monumental historical figure, but a man—and a vulnerable one, at that. Cynthia Nixon is also impressive (despite being hampered by prosthetic teeth) as a meek and youthful Eleanor Roosevelt who slowly blossoms into a forceful personality across the film's two hours. Tim Blake Nelson and Kathy Bates further strengthen the picture. Nelson plays the Warm Springs caretaker with a sad sack likeability that makes his growing friendship with Roosevelt feel genuine and perfectly believable, though the two men couldn't be more different in terms of both background and temperament. Helena Maloney is just the sort of role at which Kathy Bates excels: a quick-witted, no-nonsense (but compassionate) woman. As functional characters, Eleanor, Tom, and Helena act as a support system for an FDR caught in the midst of a massive identity crisis. But the finely tuned performances of each of the actors ensures that the characters read as real human beings, and not simply foils to Branagh.
HBO's DVD release of Warm Springs offers an excellent transfer framed at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically-enhanced for widescreen displays. Colors are vibrant and natural, detail is excellent, and there is a minimum of digital artifacts.
The English-language audio track is offered in both stereo and Dolby 5.1 Surround. Each option is a winner in terms of clarity. Because of the source limitations, the surround track is only slightly more dynamic than the stereo. There's also a decent stereo presentation of a Spanish dub. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are available.
In addition to the feature, disc contains a few supplements. The best of them a feature-length audio commentary by director Joseph Sargent (Something the Lord Made) and screenwriter Margaret Nagle. Sargent provides plenty of production information, while Nagle goes into great detail about the challenges of trying to remain faithful to historical detail while forging a compelling drama. There are also three brief deleted scenes. They're interesting but better left on the editing-room floor (and the extras menu of the DVD). Finally, there's a Behind-the-Scenes featurette that's little more than a trailer for the picture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If I have one quibble with this release it's that there's not a featurette giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the prosthetic and CGI effects used to create FDR's atrophied legs. The special effects are so startlingly realistic, they make Branagh look like the most committed Method actor ever. I wish HBO hadn't wasted precious space on the DVD with a fluffy electronic press kit when I'd love to know how Keith VanderLaan and his team of magicians at Captive Audience Productions did their thing.
Not only does Warm Springs offer viewers a look at a lesser-known period in the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, its tight script and the fine performances of its cast make it an entertaining drama.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Joseph Sargent and Writer Margaret Nagle
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