Midway through Atlantic Crossing

Sail on with caution: fact and fiction may collide

Atlantic Crossing

Photo: Julie Vrabelova / courtesy of PBS Masterpiece
Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan portray the princess and the president in Atlantic Crossing.

The Norwegian American

At the time this paper is going to press, many of us are about midway through the PBS Masterpiece mini-series Atlantic Crossing, and if you are like me, you may be wondering what to think about it—and you are not alone. The series is creating quite a lot of buzz in mainstream media channels and social media. On our own website here at The Norwegian American, we’ve seen a surge of traffic related to searches on the “princess and the president,” specifically whether President Roosevelt in real life did have an affair with Crown Princess Märtha.

Atlantic Crossing, like the popular Netflix series The Crown (2016) about the British Royal House, has come under fire because of the liberties the scriptwriters and director have taken with historical facts, so much so, that after each episode, PBS publishes a “Fact or Fiction” feature on their website, and for those of us following it, we learn that much of what we are seeing simply isn’t true. For this reason, many historians have voiced their objections to the series in Norway and Sweden, where, for the most part,  it has been trashed in the press.

A recent discussion between creator, writer in PBS online event with, Norwegian director Alexander Eik, American screenwriter Linda May Kallestein, and the series’ stars Kyle MacLachlan and Sofia Helin sheds some light on the artists’ approach of the series and how history and fantasy shaped the manuscript.

Lead actor MacLachlan explained that Atlantic Crossing is about “a woman finding her voice,” perhaps a voice that has to some extent been lost in the pages of history. For most people—even in Norway and her native Sweden—Crown Princess Märtha remained an almost obscure figure, a woman behind scenes in the drama that played out during the Second World War. Lead actress Helin had never heard of her when Eik pitched the role to her and immediately became intrigued. She, like Eik and others, wanted to find out who Märtha was, and she immediately said yes to the role.

But who was Märtha? On their website, PBS describes her as the princess who “steals the heart of the president of the United States,” but what was their relationship in reality, and to what extent did she influence history?

To create their script, Eik and Kallestein spent over six years doing research to rediscover Märtha’s story. The available biographies and literature left too many questions open, so they began to dig into archives to get closer to the actual sources. They learned that the crown princess had met with the president up to 248 times in less than five years, many of them behind closed doors, leading to more questions.

Eik and Kallestein crafted their storyline based on what they thought might have happened—not an unusual approach in historical drama. Other historians have speculated on the nature of the relationship, too, and there is a general consensus that Roosevelt was very fond of or even enamored with Märtha, but more important, she was passionately committed to the Norwegian cause. The latter is perhaps the most important aspect of the story: she was a woman, and she was somehow able to make a difference.

Historians would tell us, however, that the role she played has been grossly exaggerated in the film. Unlike insinuations made by Eleanor Roosevelt in film, the U.S. did not enter into the Lend-Lease program simply because her husband’s wandering eye had gotten out of control. Many critical historical facts have been left out of the series.

Even with these flaws in Atlantic Crossing, I’ve decided that it is worth watching. The production is visually stunning, and the acting is polished and engaging. MacLachlan successfully captures the demeanor of Roosevelt on screen, his physicality, his humor and wit. While Helin does not look like the real-life crown princess, she is able to inject herself into the role that is equally engaging. The creators also made the right decision to leave the dialogue in Norwegian, Swedish, and English with subtitles, which give the film an authentic feeling.

That said, I am doing my homework, I check the PBS fact-checker after each episode. The controversy has even sparked me to  start reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s  Pulitzer-Prize-winning chronicle of the Roosevelts during the war years, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1995), with its exhaustive, well-documented research.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of Atlantic Crossing it that it ignites our curiosity about the Norwegian-American relationship. It leads us examine the role of women in history and to want to tell their often forgotten or untold stories. It is important, however, to remember that you cannot take the historical content of the mini-series at face value.

That said, I will continue my journey with Atlantic Crossing, and if you haven’t yet gotten on board, you may find it to be an entertaining way to explore an important chapter in history.

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This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.