“I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header. Our homeland was America. … Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.” — The Plot Against America: A Novel, by Philip Roth
Even before writer-producers David Simon and Ed Burns decided to turn Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate-history novel The Plot Against America into a splashy, handsome-looking HBO miniseries, the book had already been drawing some renewed attention from readers and cultural commentators, primarily because of Roth’s eerily prescient vision of a country drifting towards fascism. In the novel, pilot Charles Lindbergh—a bona fide American hero in the eyes of millions—trounces Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, despite Lindbergh’s past antisemitic comments and his support of Adolf Hitler. The book depicts the Lindbergh years in ways that many have found chillingly familiar, post-2016. In some ways, life just goes on as normal, with all the same petty concerns and small joys that occupied everyone’s time before the election. And in other ways, the nation—and what it stands for—transforms overnight.
The first part of Simon and Burns’ six-episode The Plot Against America adaptation ends before Lindbergh wins; but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that’s where this story is headed. (It’s pretty much the whole premise of the miniseries, after all.) Instead, “Part 1” mostly sets up what’s to come, introducing the plot’s major players.
As in the book, Lindbergh himself (played by Ben Cole) isn’t a main character. Instead, The Plot Against America is primarily about how one staunchly Democratic Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey adjusts to this new reality, where both their ethnicity and their political leanings are suddenly suspect. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is a successful insurance agent, living in a predominately Jewish middle-class neighborhood with his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) and his sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson). The Levins also look after Herman’s stubborn and restless young adult nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle); and they spend a lot of time socializing with Bess’s spinster sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder).
As the story begins, the biggest dilemma the Levin family faces involves whether or not Herman should take a promotion that will mean both a big boost in pay and a move to the nearby suburb of Union, where they’d be the only Jews on their block—in a neighborhood that includes a German-style beer garden. Meanwhile, there’s some low-level concern around the household about Evelyn’s long-running affair with a married man, which she hasn’t done the best job of keeping secret.
No one though is especially worried about the upcoming election, even after Lindbergh announces he’s running. Herman dismisses him as “an airplane pilot with opinions,” and he reinforces his certainty in Roosevelt’s victory by retreating into his favorite media bubble: listening to Walter Winchell’s radio broadcast, which features a regular lambasting of Lindbergh.
Still, there are some disturbing rumblings on the horizon. The Levins’ neighbors are quick to condemn the Republican nominee for his Nazi sympathies; but they also remember how much they cheered his accomplishments as a pilot, and they express admiration for the way he projects confidence and virility. Sandy, the artist in the family, secretly sketches Lindbergh under the covers in bed at night. And the popular Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—played by John Turturro with a buttery southern accent, reflecting the character’s South Carolina roots—stands in favor of Lindbergh’s promise to keep America out of the war in Europe, while insisting that the candidate’s previous comments about the Jews were born of an innocent ignorance.
This is where the fiction of The Plot Against America and the reality of America 2020 begin to echo each other, in this portrait of a country where no one’s entirely sure if the person aspiring to become the leader of the free world is really a bigot, or if he just spouts off without thinking. Either way, many of the American people seem willing to live with the tradeoffs, considering “having a strong leader” more important than where he might actually lead them.
I confess that I had some mixed feelings when I first heard Simon would be adapting Roth’s novel. In series and miniseries like The Wire, The Deuce, Generation Kill and Show Me A Hero, Simon and his closest collaborators have insightfully examined how society tends to function as a lumbering machine, resistant to any individual’s efforts to redirect it. This is an idea that runs throughout The Plot Against America, too. After Lindbergh takes command, the mechanisms that keep the country running—from business to education to journalism to basic civic engagement—click right along, largely unchanged, because their stewards find it more profitable to stay the course.
But Roth’s The Plot Against America is also as much a memoir as it is a blow-by-blow report of a world gone topsy-turvy. In the book, the Levins are actually called the Roths, and the changes America undergoes in the Lindbergh era are sometimes just the backdrop to stories about the young Philip’s life in New Jersey in the late ’30s and early ’40s, where little Jewish boys collected stamps and cheered the Yankees and surreptitiously shared whatever they’d heard about girls and sex.
I wasn’t sure how well a clear-eyed cynic like Simon would handle the more warmly nostalgic aspects of Roth’s novel. After the first episode, I’m still in wait-and-see mode. (HBO provided the full miniseries to critics in advance; but since I’m going to be reviewing weekly, I’m watching one episode at a time.)
There are moments where the TV version of The Plot Against America nails the personal perspective and digressive quality of the text, like when Philip’s buddy Earl Axman (Graydon Yosowitz) invites him into his divorced mom’s bedroom to gawk at her underwear. But at other times, Simon’s usual matter-of-fact approach feels inadequate, as in the scene where a neighbor knocks on the Levins’ door, collecting donations for the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In the book, this prompts the thesis statement Roth delivers at the start of the first chapter—which I’ve quoted atop this review. On TV, the meaning of the moment is less obvious.
At the same time, Simon and Burns (and the episode’s crew, including director Minkie Spiro) do make welcome concessions to the television medium’s episodic structure, including ending the “Part 1” with a moment unlike anything in the early chapters of the novel: a tense sequence cross-cutting between Herman in a movie theater watching the latest depressing war news and Alvin and his hoodlum pals beating up drunks outside the Union beer garden. This is a point in the larger story where adding a sense of urgency and context matters. It’s a smart place to reset, just before the election.
Some of the best moments in this first The Plot Against America episode though are some of the smallest: little bits of character development and scene-setting that serve the larger narrative in subtle ways. I’m thinking here of Bess apologizing to Evelyn for the way her sister has had to take care of their mother for most of her adult life, to which Evelyn shrugs says something that’s a major theme of The Plot Against America: “It’s just the way things worked out.”
And then there’s the opening scene of this miniseries, which is straight from the novel: a group of kids in the street playing a dodgeball-like game called “I Declare War,” where they each pretend to be a country and take turns allying against each other. It’s a bookend of sorts to the scene at the end of Alvin literally attacking German-Americans. But it’s also a reminder that even as the world slides into violence and chaos, kids are still kids, and some things don’t change. That’s a truth at once reassuring and mortifying.
- It’s probably no coincidence that a show co-produced and co-written by former newspaperman David Simon would feature so much printed material in its depiction of the distant past. There’s a lot of reading going on, from Action Comics to the daily paper. And those newspapers are so huge! I miss the days of papers you had to hold at arms’-length.
- You may recognize the actor playing young Philip from Noah Baumbach’s recent Oscar-nominated dramedy Marriage Story. He plays Henry, the grumbly son who has trouble reading. This series couldn’t have been shot too long after Marriage Story, and yet he already looks so much older. Sunrise, sunset, and whatnot.