The Plot Against America Manages to Feel Chillingly Relevant
Philip Roth was one of the towering figures of American fiction and the rare writer to have written multiple masterpieces throughout his long career. The Plot Against America is not one of them. That’s not to say it’s bad — in fact, it’s excellent — but Roth was at his best when he was honed in on the inner turmoil and roiling desires of his protagonists, and the alternative history of The Plot Against America doesn’t leave as much room for that kind of interiority as in his less high concept novels. Two years after Roth died, at age 85, The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns have adapted his novel of a historical America gone wrong into a six-part miniseries for HBO. Their version of The Plot Against America sometimes gets bogged down in its desire to create unmissable parallels between Roth’s novel and the United States’ current predicament, but the show’s premiere is nonetheless an engrossing evocation of a barely missed historical calamity.
The Plot Against America begins in 1940, as the Second World War rages in Europe. The aviation hero Charles Lindbergh has reentered public life after a spell in Europe, and he devotes his clout to anti-war America First Committee while delivering unabashedly anti-Semitic speeches (all real). Roth’s’ novel departs from history when the Nazi sympathizer wins the Republican presidential nomination during the final day of the 1940 Republican National Convention and manages to marshal the support of the conservative South and Midwest to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bid for a third term. Once in office, President Lindbergh ensures that the US won’t enter the war and signs an agreement with Nazi Germany that leads to a campaign of official and unofficial discrimination toward American Jews, including a rural resettlement plan.
Roth makes his narrator a fictionalized seven-year-old version of himself, and his quasi-real life family members are all present. His aunt Evelyn Finkel also plays a major part, as does her future husband, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro, chilling), a collaborationist who goes to great lengths to support Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic agenda in the mistaken belief that he’s saving American Jews from a darker fate.
It’s clear that the series’ focus will be considerably different from the novel when we see that young Philip Roth is renamed Philip Levin (played by Marriage Story’s Azhy Robertson). The change, reportedly at Roth’s request, signals that the intoxicating personal details of Roth’s own life (real or imagined) will be sidelined in order to focus on the social and political issues animating the story. We learn little about Philip or his family in the first episode, though it spends more time with his older troubled cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who exacts revenge on a group of German–American bigots, and his aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder), a teacher who fears becoming a spinster, at least until she meets the charming Rabbi Bengelsdorf. There are some nice details about Philip — his love of collecting stamps, and the way he loses his cool when a classmate passes him a note during class with a drawing of a nude woman — but he’s mostly a blank throughout the first episode.
Instead, the show spends more time charting Lindbergh’s rise to power. Unlike in the book, he actively campaigns for president, so we get to hear multiple Jewish residents of Roth’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey, pontificating on how Lindbergh is out of his depth and could never win the presidency. After the gossip columnist Walter Winchell delivers an impassioned attack on Lindbergh, Philip’s father Herman (Morgan Spector) seems to think a mortal blow has been delivered to the former aviator. “Whatever Walter Winchell left standing tonight, FDR will tear down tomorrow,” he opines with total certainty.
Burns and Simon, who wrote the first episode, make it impossible not to recall the countless pundits and elected officials who wrote off Donald Trump’s inexperience and unsuitable temperament. Herman’s belief that Lindbergh could be destroyed by a radio broadcast mirrors the way pundits would declare Trump DOA after every gaffe, spectacular failure, or malicious policy move. Of course, those screw-ups didn’t matter to enough people in the most influential parts of the country, and they won’t matter for Lindbergh either.
Most of these conversations don’t originate in the novel, and Roth is subtler about the way Lindbergh takes power. Though many Jews are paying attention, the aviator seems to take the country by storm in the book, riding a short wave of enthusiasm to the presidency before most have noticed what’s happening. It’s a more realistic approach that understands that most Americans aren’t tuned into politics at all, and even when they are, reactionary politics can hold a special appeal to them. It was easy to read Roth’s 2004 novel as a comment on the George W. Bush administration, but the novel worked plenty well without needing to draw those parallels. The Plot Against America miniseries, on the other hand, sometimes underestimates its audience; most viewers would get the connection to contemporary politics just fine without Simon and Burns bashing them over the head with it.
But even with their sometimes clunky attempts to connect the novel to current events, The Plot Against America still manages to feel chillingly relevant. After all, we’re living in a world where it’s no longer possible to deny the existence of real Nazis, which makes the show’s hordes of German–American Nazi sympathizers so frightening. The premiere’s devotion to setting the scene means, unfortunately, that no single actor gets much time to shine in the premiere, but Ryder, Spector, and Zoe Kazan as Philip’s mother Bess all give strong performances. They’re helped out by the show’s impeccable production design, which effectively evokes Newark and early-1940s New Jersey.
In some ways, Simon and Burns are in an enviable position for the rest of the series; Roth’s novel is so compelling that even a slapdash adaptation could still be entertaining and engaging. The real question is whether they’ll be able to match the nuances of Roth’s prose and his eye for detail. Either way, it’s worth sticking around to find out.