“There’s a lot of hate out there. And he knows how to tap into it.” That comment, spoken early in The Plot Against America, refers to Charles Lindbergh, but it’s impossible to separate it from our current events, and our current occupier of the White House. Philip Roth’s source material novel was published in 2004, before the rise of Trumpism, but its storyline of America slipping into full-blown fascism due to the election of a hate-stoking candidate is depressingly more relevant than ever. And that’s part of what makes this admittedly fantastic HBO miniseries so damn difficult to watch.
The Plot Against America is a work of alternative history, but it stands apart from most alternative history because of how real it feels and I don’t just mean because it’s telling a story that feels eerily familiar to our own current times. More often than not, alternative history will feel the need to throw some sort of sci-fi plot device into the works as a way of explanation – witness Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which covers similar subject matter as this new adaption. But The Plot Against America never goes down that path. There’s nothing fanciful, or fantastical here.
Instead, creators David Simon and Ed Burns have brought a stark realism to everything. The world feels lived-in and accurate. Many of the events in The Plot Against America didn’t happen, but they feel as if they could have happened had one or two things turned out differently in history. It’s 1940, and Hitler and Germany are running rampant all over Europe. But America has yet to enter the war, and if aviation hero (and noted antisemite) Charles Lindbergh has anything to say about it, the USA will remain on the sidelines. Lindbergh – frequently described as a “big man in a little plane” – decides to toss his hat into the ring and run against Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lindbergh’s platform is simple: he wants to keep America out of the war. The choice is simple, he says over and over again. America can either vote for war in the form of FDR, or they can vote for Lindbergh. The aviation giant remains a popular figure for his past – but he’s also prone to expressing antisemitic rhetoric that’s destined to put the country’s Jewish population in danger.
All of this is glimpsed through the eyes of the Levin family. Matriarch Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is against Lindbergh from the start, and firmly believes that America will reject the pilot-turned-politician due to his hate speech. Herman’s wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) isn’t so sure. Neither is Herman’s nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle). As for Herman’s kids, his youngest son Philip (Azhy Robertson) views the world through wide, confused eyes, while his older son Sandy (Caleb Malis) seems more prone to be swept up in pro-Lindbergh, anti-Jewish sentiment. And then there’s Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder), who falls into a romantic relationship with Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro, who gets to ham it up here because his character requires it), the lone Jew working within Lindbergh’s campaign. Bengelsdorf swears over and over again that despite Lindbergh is a good man, and not an antisemite, and the smitten Evelyn accepts this, even as her sister grows warry. And sure enough, Lindbergh ends up beating FDR and becoming the 33rd President of the United States.
True to his word, Lindbergh keeps America out of the war – by striking agreements directly with Hitler, a dictator he isn’t afraid to pal around with from time to time. While The Plot Against America occasionally checks-in directly with the Lindbergh administration, it mostly remains focused on the Levins, as they stand outside looking in, and as their way of life grows more and more tumultuous. Herman becomes angrier and angrier as Bess grows more and more worried; Sandy gets completely suckered by Lindbergh’s heroic persona; and Alvin heads to Canada in order to join the military and kill some Nazis.
As you might guess, things in The Plot Against America grow very dark and dire very quickly. The first episode portrays the New Jersey neighborhood the Levins inhabit as a sunny, bustling block where kids run wild in the street and parents sit on porches and crack wise. But as Lindbergh rises to power, the shots of the neighborhood grow starker, and darker, to the point where we only ever see them late at night, where the shadows grow long, and paranoia runs rampant.
The overwhelming darkness of this subject matter will no doubt be difficult for some viewers – especially at our current time, when everything appears to be going to hell with every new headline. But the craft on display here is so sharp, so engrossing, that it’s easy to get swept up in the tide. Anchoring it all is a phenomenal cast, all of whom – even Ryder, the most famous face of the bunch – fitting in perfectly with the period details. Spector is tense, and intense, as the increasingly furious Herman, but the two biggest standouts here are Kazan, playing Bess with wide, frightened eyes, and saying so much while saying so little –”Maybe it’s too early to leave,” she says, after suggesting the Levin family flee to Canada. “But it’s not too early to have a back-up plan.” – and Boyle, who turns Alvin into a brooding, dashing, Brando-esque tough guy who is ultimately laid low.
If there’s any hope shining through The Plot Against America, it’s in the form of this familial unit. It’s not an easy-won hope – it is a hope that is constantly fighting to pull through. To push back against the seemingly inevitable, and unstoppable. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, as the saying goes. And the Levins, for all their personal flaws, aren’t content to sit back and do nothing. We can only hope that in the end, that’s enough.
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