Sunday, April 09, 2006

Warm Springs

Warm Springs is an inspiring look at Franklin Roosevelt's little publicised triumph over polio and at his mortal weaknesses, to which he was subject like all of us. Warm Springs is (or rather, it looks like a place frozen in time) a place in Georgia, not more than an hour's drive from Atlanta, where natural, hot, mineral spring waters were purported to provide rehabilitation for polio patients. The film is an enduring one, because it shows both the greatness as well as great shortcomings of the man. It portrays FDR's life before he was stricken (including his relationship with his secretary) and his frustrations and despair after he became crippled with the disease. A trip to Warm Springs convinced him that the healing powers of the hot springs there might possibly cure the affliction. After tense confrontations with his mother and wife, he finally bought the place, and later used it to relax during presidential summers.

Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, and brings style and substance to FDR's character. The main reason why the film shines is because it rightly portrays a great man as being subject to the same human nature as all of us. It is revealing to see FDR's obduracy, his childlishness, and his arrogance, all affect his relationship with his family and his outlook and reasoning. For much of the first part of the movie, we see not the great president who he became, but a man broken in body and spirit, who perhaps did not display the will-power that even common men possess. We also see his arrogance; in one notable scene, he sees other crippled patients gathered at the poolside, and turns away and threatens to leave, claiming that his aristocratic self should not have to mix with these common men. The brutally candid propreitor of the place sees through FDR's high-handedness and tells him to face up to the fact, that the real reason for not wanting to mix with those people is because it makes him aware of the pity and loathing with which other people look down upon him. Just like all of us, FDR puts on masks to hide his feelings. Of course, like all great men, he rises above all these tormenting predicaments. As he comes to Warm Springs every year and travels the countryside, he becomes aware of the despair facing farmers and the common folk around the place, and witnesses the poverty stricken landscape that the Depression has wrought. By looking around him, the future charismatic president learnt about his people's plight first hand. With his signature charm and understanding, he provides hope and inspiration to both the polio-riddled patients at Warm Springs, and the impecunious people living around it. The message the story really delivers is that unbeknownst to many, FDR's life's work and journey started here, in this rural place in Georgia, where the ills, ailments, and triumphs of the simplest and most common men gave him the resilience and foresight to fight great battles later on. Supporting him at each step of course, was the sparkling Eleanor (played by a glowing Cynthia Nixon- it's hard to imagine that this same woman is a central character in the repulsive Sex and the City), who played a major part in his physical as well as mental rehabilitation. After polio was detected, FDR's mother had thought that his political career was over. But she underestimated the power of the common man that could inject hope and strength in her depressed son's soul, as well as his own great innate capacity to excel.

I have already written about my trip to Warm Springs, and it is a place that evokes forgotten memories, even if one never actually experienced them. In his famous later career, FDR steered the nation through the Depression and World War 2. But it was much earlier that his fight began, in the midst of souls that were stricken but not shattered. Warm Springs built FDR's character like no other thing in his life. It is a relatively obscure period of his life, from the late 1920s. But in many ways, it was the one which made him the great leader he was. At Warm Springs, FDR engaged in a true democracy, with everyone, from the black helper to the little polio stricken girl having a say. Providing humour and warmth was a motherly, plucky lady who joined the center as a physical therapist. These common men and women taught FDR much, and he turn inspired them to fight against circumstances, an ability that was to be crucial for everyone in every way in the dark years that followed.

World War 2 was the greatest war known to mankind. But for FDR, the biggest personal battle which he fought- and won -was at Warm Springs, a battle which we should know about. I have watched the film several times, and have now bought a DVD of it. Watch Warm Springs: it will warm your heart.


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