Joseph Sargent has directed a trio of Emmy-winning HBO movies, and he delivers another contender here with this impeccably crafted look at a crucial window in the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If the landmark miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin” focused principally on the missus, this zeroes in more squarely on the 32nd president, played with gusto by Kenneth Branagh. While it’s difficult to rival that earlier masterpiece, a great longform production about the Roosevelts every 30 years hardly amounts to tapping the well too often.
The film opens as Franklin, in the midst of a promising political career, is struck with polio, rendering his legs useless and thrusting him into depression. His paralysis forces a rapprochement of sorts between Roosevelt and wife Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon), whose relationship has been fractured by the revelation of his infidelity with Lucy Mercer.
Seeking refuge as well as recuperation, Franklin moves to a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, where the soothing mineral water creates the buoyancy that allows him to stand upon his frail, wizened legs. (These shots alone are a remarkable technical combination of prosthetics and computer imagery that seamlessly grafts what amount to pallid sticks onto Branagh’s torso.)
A local newspaper article not only creates attention for the resort and its genial proprietor (Tim Blake Nelson) but also attracts others similarly afflicted, where they form a close-knit community. Meanwhile, Roosevelt aide Louis Howe (David Paymer) continues to dream of reviving Franklin’s political aspirations, drawing the shy Eleanor out of her shell to keep his presence alive in the necessary circles.
Stirring and touching but seldom maudlin, Sargent’s handling of Margaret Nagle’s script conveys the enormous toll the disease inflicted and how the battle steeled resolve that propelled Roosevelt through more than a dozen years in the White House. “When I can walk, I’ll run,” he bellows at one point, those ambitions having seemingly been derailed by his humbling condition, which forces aides to carry him about as if he were a sack of potatoes.
Branagh infuses the character with considerable humanity and, despite scant physical resemblance, captures his starched voice without lapsing into caricature. It’s a brilliant performance that nearly overshadows a splendid supporting cast, including Nelson, Kathy Bates as a physical therapist, the well-cast Paymer and Jane Alexander — Eleanor in the aforementioned mini — who turns up here as Franklin’s domineering mother.
Nixon struggles a bit enunciating through Eleanor’s protruding teeth (and looks even less like her), but we feel her pain over Franklin loving another woman — an episode given relatively short shrift as the narrative quickly advances to Warm Springs, where FDR ultimately died with Mercer at his side.
Then again, by narrowly fixing on this defining period prior to Roosevelt’s triumphant return to the public eye, HBO has again illuminated a fascinating but underreported bit of history, as was the case with last year’s “Something the Lord Made.”
Shot in some of the actual Southern locations, pic spares no expense in its trappings, from the costumes and cars (a particularly fine moment features Roosevelt proudly driving a specially rigged jalopy) to Bruce Broughton’s excellent score.
For all the recent hullabaloo over where and how to present made-for-TV movie Emmys, “Warm Springs” is a welcome throwback — recalling the days when that genre not only commanded, but deserved, its place in the spotlight.