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As mentioned before on this blog, one of the lockdown induced-drifts I experienced was an appetite for films that told a human story in an uncluttered idiom, free of special effects. The algorithms at streaming media platforms are pretty good these days and soon enough, Disney-Hotstar recommended the 2005 television film Warm Springs. It proved to be a rewarding experience at many levels.

The film depicts a stage from the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States. It picks up from the 1920 presidential election campaign, in which Roosevelt is the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President. At this point, Roosevelt is a picture of possibility. He hails from a well-known influential family, has had access to good education; is wealthy and married to Eleanor.  In the election however, his side loses. The Republicans gain a landslide victory. Roosevelt takes the defeat in his stride. It does little to dampen his spirit or invite introspection. He carries on as before, included therein being an affair with his wife’s secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor discovers the affair and it causes severe strain on their marriage. A divorce is prevented by Roosevelt’s domineering mother, Sara.

Around this time, Roosevelt is struck by poliomyelitis. The disease leaves him paralyzed from waist down. Besides being a personal setback, the impact of paralysis is amplified by the effect it can potentially have on his political image and career. It seems the end of Roosevelt the politician. However, his political advisor Louis Howe believes, that needn’t be the case. In his assessment, the loss at the 1920 hustings had served to catapult Roosevelt to the national stage. He and Eleanor stand by Roosevelt during the period of his illness, drawing up plans to keep the extent of damage a secret and at the same time doing what they can to keep Roosevelt’s name afloat in political circles, including forays by Eleanor into the women’s suffrage movement. The film’s real story revolves around Roosevelt’s journey to a spa resort in Georgia and his subsequent stay there trying out hydrotherapy as means to improve his condition. Impressed by his progress and inspired by the people he meets, he decides to acquire the property in the hope of creating a center offering the therapy to those in need. It is a period that restores his faith in himself and also mends to an extent, the soured relationship with Eleanor. The film concludes with his return to active politics.

Aside from the fact that polio too is caused by a virus, what made this film relevant amidst COVID-19 lockdown, was Roosevelt’s tenure as president of the US and the curiosity to know what all went into making him the person he was. Beyond being the longest serving president of the US, Roosevelt is associated with his service to the nation during two critical periods – the Great Depression and World War II. The Great Depression began during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, with the Wall Street Crash of October 24, 1929. Roosevelt became president in the depths of the depression and it was under his leadership and the programs his government introduced, that America began clawing its way out of economic downturn. His interventions, while effective, were not welcomed by big business. The website whitehouse.gov notes, “ By 1935, the nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt’s New Deal program. They feared his experiment, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.’’

As an outside observer, you wonder – how did a person born and raised in elite circumstances come to embrace such an approach and lead his country out of an economic crisis? For me, now tackling the economic consequences of COVID-19 lockdown, that was the dominant instinct while watching Warm Springs (the film is named after the place where the spa resort stood), which scans a small but important phase of Roosevelt’s life. The film didn’t disappoint, unraveling in its sweep, the personal suffering Roosevelt endured on account of polio, the society he encountered in the conservative south, the fellow disadvantaged souls he attracted to the spa resort and the inclusive community he built there. As a politician, he was already a people’s man albeit withdrawn since the polio episode. In addition to his own transformation through hdrotherapy, what you notice in the film, is the change to the social circles he elects to connect with and learn from. You get a sense of cocoon breached and world seeping in. The film has a solid cast with Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor, Jane Alexander as Sara Delano Roosevelt, David Paymer as Louis Howe, Kathy Bates as Helena Mahoney and Tim Blake Nelson as Tom Loyless.

Warm Springs remained dear to Roosevelt’s heart. He died during his fourth term as president. He was in Warm Springs when the end came.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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