Thursday, April 01, 2021

Atlantic Crossing: FDR & the Princess, on PBS

It is too bad Poland and the Baltic Republics did not have a supply of exiled princesses to send to flirt with FDR. If they had, post-war history might have been much happier for Eastern Europe. Fortunately for Norway, their Crown Princess forged a critical personal and strategic connection with the President. That much is true, but the surrounding history gets a generous stretching in creator-director Alexander Eik’s Atlantic Crossing, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

During a pre-war goodwill tour of America, Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha made quite an impression on Pres. Roosevelt, especially the latter. As a result, the president is delighted to give her asylum after the Germans invade and occupy Norway, particularly since Prince Olav was evacuated to London, in order to liaison between the cabinet in exile and the British military. Soon, FDR even has the royal children calling him “godfather,” but he is still adamantly opposed to taking any military action in Europe.

Of course, Norway is desperate for aid, so the princess works behind the scenes to make Roosevelt more of an internationalist-interventionist. Initially, all the time she spends with Roosevelt rather irks the peacenik first lady, but eventually even she warms to Princess Martha’s charms.

has already stirred up a hornet’s nest of historical controversy for the rather liberal dramatic license it takes. Churchill certainly gets short shrift for his concerted effort to woe FDR to the Allied cause. Yet, arguably, admirers of the Roosevelts have even more to gripe about. Essentially, the show reduces the Lend-Lease act to a heartsick sugardaddy’s box of chocolates. The truth is FDR is one of the greatest presidents in American history, precisely because he was such a disciplined wartime commander-in-chief. What kind of legacy is left when you take that away? Prolonging the Great Depression and court-packing?

The eight-part series also goes from Pearl Harbor to the Yalta Conference in the blink of an eye. We guarantee it did not feel like that to Americans who lived through the war. In fact, the first three episodes are probably the most absorbing, because of the way they depict the unrealistic belief Norway’s neutrality would keep it out of war and the desperate consequences of its military unpreparedness. Yes, this is the part where I draw parallels between the denial and appeasement of the 1930s and our similar policies towards the overtly hostile CCP today.

Be that as it undeniably is, Kyle McLachlan is surprisingly convincing channeling the Roosevelt persona and Harriet Sansom Harris is a spot-on dead-ringer for the First Lady. She also brings out Mrs. Roosevelt’s humor quite effectively (while McLachlan can be downright cringey wooing the Princess). Sofia Helin and Tobias Santelmann have some nice moments individually as the royal couple, but all their wartime bickering comes across as shortsighted, churlish, and ultimately exhausting. Yet, Søren Pilmark helps redeem much of the royal family melodrama with his commanding performance as King Haakon VII.

definitely has its share of intriguing sequences, as when it implies the Operation Pastorius saboteurs really intended to kidnap Princess Martha and her children (which is a historical embellishment, but a relatively reasonable way to crank up the intrigue). Overall, the series is dramatically messy and fudges and glosses the historical record at will, but its subject matter and perspective are undeniably interesting. Viewers need to understand there is more to the geopolitics than Eik lets on, but it is still enjoyable for fans of WWII era soap operas, much like PBS’s World on Fire. Recommended with those stated caveats, Atlantic Crossing starts this Sunday (4/4), on PBS.