Why FDR Matters

For British director Roger Michell, making HYDE PARK ON HUDSON was personal in many ways. The tale of FDR meeting King and Queen of England in upstate New York not only had a profound effect on modern history, but connected to his dad in unexpected ways.

After finishing this film, I happened to be re-reading my father's tea-stained copy of William L. Shirer's Berlin Diary.

Shirer was an American journalist who spent much of WWII heroically broadcasting from Berlin. In the entry for July 20th, 1940, he talks of FDR being re-nominated in Chicago for a third term, an event which the Nazi press described as having been achieved by methods "sharply condemned by all eyewitnesses." He goes on:

Hitler fears Roosevelt. He is just beginning to comprehend that Roosevelt's support of Great Britain is one of the prime reasons that the British decline to accept his offer of peace.

Shirer then quotes the following telling passage from The Frankfurter Zeitung:

Roosevelt is the father of English illusions about this war. It may be that Roosevelt's shabby tactics are too much for the Americans, it may be that he will not be re-elected, it may be that, if he is re-elected, he will stick closely to the non-intervention programme of his party. But it is also clear that while he may not intervene with his fleet or his army, he will intervene with speeches, with intrigues, and with a powerful propaganda which he will put at the disposal of the English.

By choosing to go against the immediate interests of his party, and against prevailing tides of isolationism or worse within his own electorate, FDR offered very real hope to England in what must have seemed at the time a hopeless situation. Many would have seen a kind of peace with Hitler as the only sensible way to avoid summary invasion.

The weekend at Hyde Park on Hudson, twelve weeks before the outbreak of the War and the subject of our film, becomes, in my mind, even more of an historical fulcrum: a moment where the smallest gesture has the greatest echo. Like catastrophe theory, which posits that a butterfly's beating wings may generate by infinite degree of separation a mighty storm, so does a mouthful of hot dog (ironically a Frankfurter, no less) prefigure Omaha Beach and Victory in Europe.

Richard Nelson's marvelous script delicately juxtaposes the public and the private, and the domestic and the epic. The sweep of great events and the persuasive power of great personalities vie for a hand at the tiller of history.

My father flew Lancasters over Berlin, was shot down, and was a POW. He is long dead. I put his copy of the Shirer diaries back on the shelf and feel the echoes of the King's Top Cottage picnic still vibrating around me.

Roger Michell

London, U.K.

June 2012