In some respects, Warm Springs is a companion piece to Hyde Park on the Hudson. While the latter shows FDR as a mature president, confident in his position in politics and comfortable with his partial paralysis, the former reveals a different side to Roosevelt: when his upper-class confidence was shattered due to the after effects of polio.
Warm Springs is of a collection of flashbacks. The movie starts with Franklin swimming in a lake somewhere and two hired hands helping him out of the water onto the dock. Strangely, the movie doesn’t end by returning to this post-swim scene; it isn’t quite clear where the scene falls in terms of his life.
At the start of the movie, Franklin is far from a sympathetic character. He is the stereotypical northeastern elite snob, playing in politics but not really taking anything seriously. He cheats on his wife and is unable to relate to the common folk. At one point, Eleanor offers him his freedom (i.e., a divorce), which he accepts. Alas, his mother does not. Since she controls the purse strings—divorce Eleanor and lose the trust fund—the divorce was not to be.
It wasn’t that Franklin’s mother thought well of marriage or their marriage or Eleanor, just that divorce was not acceptable for a political career. Period. End of story.
And then he contracted polio. Whereas Hyde Park on the Hudson shows Franklin’s post-polio philandering, Warm Springs does not reveal that side of his post-polio life at all. Whereas Hyde Park on the Hudson shows Roosevelt as ever-confident and mentoring the King of England on his handicap (stuttering), Warm Springs shows Roosevelt in the depths of despair.
We see through his eyes and experiences at Warm Springs what likely created the compassionate, caring president that he became. Franklin seems to move in circles of utter poverty for the first time. He witnesses the discrimination of other polio survivors. And with a little prompting from others, gets outside of his own self-absorbed world to care for others around him.
While Franklin is finding himself at Warm Springs, Eleanor is finding herself, with the help of Franklin’s ever-loyal, ever-waiting-in-the-shadows campaign manager. Louie Howe shifts his focus from Franklin to Eleanor. Eleanor starts to speak at meetings and champions causes, blossoming into the image of Eleanor that we know from her time as First Lady.
Warm Springs is a feel-good movie, a rather different movie about Roosevelt than Hyde Park on the Hudson. Strangely, Hyde Park on the Hudson was a feel-good movie not about Franklin but about King George finding himself in his new role as king.