Of the tens of thousands of photographs in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, only two show the three-term president in a wheelchair. HBO's biopic Warm Springs, from longtime television director and Emmy winner Joseph Sargent, draws attention to Roosevelt's hidden struggle with polio and the time he spent rehabilitating in the dilapidated town of Warm Springs, Ga., before his first election as president in 1932.
The opening scene shows a struggling, lithe-legged Roosevelt (Kenneth Branagh) being hoisted from cold waters with a giant fishnet onto the floor of a boat. This is not the typical image of a U.S. president, nor is the image of a usually cloistered Roosevelt being bent over the back of a servant.
The movie's tone is set early on as wife Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon) discovers Roosevelt's adultery and tells him, "You live your life skimming the surface unaware of the attachments beneath-it must be a luxury." From there, Roosevelt is suddenly struck with infantile polio (a rare malady for an adult) and he must not only learn to walk, but deal with the discrimination and limitations that come with such a disease-even for someone with a trust fund.
Warm Springs leaves you wondering how Roosevelt could overcome such discrimination and then seemingly ignore the treatment of blacks, Japanese Americans and European Jews during his presidency. In one scene, Roosevelt shies away from fellow polio sufferers only to change his mind after seeing a young boy half-starved and tipped over in his wheelchair in the baggage car of a train. One would think that he would have learned from his experiences and gone on to fully support anti-lynching legislation, among other items, as president.
Cynthia Nixon is mildly entertaining as she tackles Eleanor Roosevelt's distinct accent while wearing false teeth. At times, it is difficult to separate Nixon from her more famous Sex and the City character, Miranda, who also had an above-average vocabulary and an affinity for witty retorts. Even with the false teeth and matronly hair, Nixon seems too pretty to play the dowdily dressed Eleanor.
The program would have fared better had it not been marred by sappy moments that give a "Lifetime drama for men" feeling, such as occasional "I can walk!" scenes and a point when patients in wheelchairs sing "I Won't Dance" (a song that technically had not yet been written). But despite such flaws, the perplexity of Roosevelt's character as a man in a wheelchair who, in the records of his presidency, is rarely seen that way makes this presentation a notable event.
Warm Springs premieres 8 pm Saturday, April 30, on HBO.