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New look at New Dealer

Times Staff Writer

It has been 60 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt died at his retreat in Warm Springs, Ga., where he had first come in 1924 to seek help for his legs, withered from polio. Though FDR’s paralysis is now well known to anyone who paid attention in history class, the extent of his involvement with Warm Springs, which he later bought and developed into a rehabilitation center, is less common knowledge.

Untold stories whet the appetite of screenwriters and TV executives alike, and “Warm Springs” has become an HBO TV movie, premiering Saturday night and starring Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V,” “Hamlet,” et al.) as the 32nd president of the United States, and Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”) as his wife and fourth cousin, Eleanor, whom Roosevelt called Babs.

Director Joseph Sargent, who also made the excellent “Something the Lord Made” and “Miss Evers’ Boys,” seems to be HBO’s go-to guy for movies about the South -- movies dealing with race especially, which this does only incidentally, though Sargent makes sure you see those “Whites Only” signs, and lets you hear FDR call a black man “boy” before he becomes a man of all people. It’s well made and entertaining and more or less true to history. Like every other fact-based TV film, of course, the script (by first-timer Margaret Nagle) shades and rearranges events for maximum dramatic effect and invents private conversations and intimate moments beyond its makers’ power to know. It is a kind of speculative fiction then, or retro-speculative fiction, designed to be both true to life and true to the movies.

Sargent’s films are remarkable for their understatement, and that quality is at work here, notwithstanding Branagh’s appropriately theatrical representation of a man much larger than life. The film follows the future president through the late teens and 1920s, as he was struck down and (with the help of everyone else in the movie) gets back up. Early scenes pointedly show young FDR -- who was not stricken with infantile paralysis until the age of 39 -- not just walking but running, bounding and rolling on the grass with his kids.

The film wants to show us the Roosevelt we don’t know -- that is, the cripple -- but it’s these images that are contrary to our idea of him nowadays. (In his own time, he was able to cloud men’s minds, Shadow-like, to the extent that it seemed perfectly natural for George M. Cohan to play a dancing Roosevelt in the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical “I’d Rather Be Right.”)

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As “Warm Springs” has it, Roosevelt, newly paralyzed, goes on a long bender on his boat down in Florida until it’s wrecked by a hurricane.

With nothing else in particular to do, he somewhat cynically heads to a run-down spa at Warm Springs, having received a letter that its waters -- which run near 90 degrees and are full of minerals that help buoy the body -- might help him. They do, a bit, unleashing his dormant optimism and enthusiasm, and as more polio patients arrive, he appoints himself the house physician. (He was indeed called “Dr. Roosevelt.”)

He tends to the sick and jokes with children. Thus begins his recovery, as a public figure and human being.

They make a little family of affliction, Franklin and the “polios” -- “a community based not on birthright or privilege but on compassion and courage,” he says. The Salk vaccine wasn’t introduced until 1955.

Like a squad in a World War II movie, they are a welter of American types. “It’s a real democracy here at Warm Springs,” says the kid from the Bronx. “Everybody gets heard.”

The suggestion is that this is where the patrician became a man of the people, that suffering produces a better person -- Eleanor has written that Franklin’s polio was “a blessing in disguise” that caused him to learn “patience” and “persistence” -- and that you have to be weak before you’re strong, and that you can’t help anyone until you let yourself be helped.

Among the helpers here are Kathy Bates as a physical therapist (“Your gluteus maximus is better than I hoped,” she tells him. “It will serve you well”); David Paymer (“The Larry Sanders Show”) as Louis Howe, FDR’s political Jiminy Cricket; and an especially fine Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother Where Art Thou?”) as hotel manager Tom Loyless, a model of Southern gentility and quiet wisdom. (The script makes him somewhat more forlorn than his historical counterpoint.)

Above all, there is Eleanor Roosevelt. Even with prosthetic protruding teeth, Nixon is an uncommonly fetching Eleanor, but she convincingly embodies her mix of (diminishing) shyness and (increasing) resolve. (The Roosevelt family dynamic was far more unconventional and complicated than the film wants to take on.)

Jane Alexander, who played eponymously opposite Edward Herrmann in the 1976 TV movie “Eleanor and Franklin” and its sequel, “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years,” is alternately charming and imperious as Franklin Roosevelt’s controlling mother.

We get only a glimpse of secretary Missy LeHand, whose importance to FDR -- some say she was his mistress -- is ignored in the service of the screenplay.

We have already seen Roosevelt giving up Lucy Mercer, who had been Eleanor’s secretary -- another girlfriend might have tipped the scales of sympathy in his disfavor, and in any case would have gotten in the way of Nagle’s dramatic thesis that the Warm Springs resort brought the Roosevelts together in a renewed intimacy, as platonic lovers and giddy co-conspirators.

“Oh, Babs,” he says. “Words fail me.”

“Franklin Roosevelt,” she responds, using his full name in the way that people in movies do when they want to say something important to people they know well, “I do love you so.”

Thus was born the New Deal.

*

‘Warm Springs’

Where: HBO

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

Ratings: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)

Kenneth Branagh...Franklin D. Roosevelt

Cynthia Nixon...Eleanor Roosevelt

David Paymer...Louis Howe

Jane Alexander...Sara Delano Roosevelt

Kathy Bates...Helena Mahoney

Tim Blake Nelson...Tom Loyless

Executive producers Mark Gordon and Celia Costas. Director Joseph Sargent. Writer Margaret Nagle.


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