The Plot Against America is a moving, terrifying saga of alt-reality fascism: Review
Philip Roth's acclaimed novel becomes a great HBO miniseries from the creators of The Wire.
It’s June 1940, and the Levins are a nuclear family ready for the Atomic Age. Bess (Zoe Kazan) keeps a fine home, while Herman (Morgan Spector) posts big numbers at Metropolitan Life Insurance. The children have hobbies: teenage Sandy (Caleb Malis) always with the drawing, little Philip (Azhy Robertson) curating a stamp collection. If Mom goes back to work and Dad gets his big promotion, they can leave Newark and purchase a nice brick house in Union County. “This Depression has knocked prices down!” Herman tells the kids. Nothing makes an American prouder than knowing it’s the right time to buy real estate.
Right now they’re in a Jewish neighborhood on Summit Avenue. In gentile Union, there’s a Brauhaus on the corner, and you can hear the German fight songs a mile away. “Hey, Juden! Wrong turn!” some beery anti-Semite yells as the Levins drive by. Newsreels proclaim Hitler’s war machine is on the march through Europe. “What’s a ‘fascist bastard'”? Philip asks one night, and the difficult parental conversations are just beginning. Doesn’t history promise brighter tomorrows? World War II will start and end before Sandy hits draft age. Couldn’t Herman and Bess prosper into postwar suburbanites?
In the astounding six-episode miniseries The Plot Against America — based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel — history takes a hard right turn. Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), hero pilot and Hitler fanboy, runs for president as an antiwar Republican. He’s preaching peace with a dog whistle, and he glows so bright that even some Jews support ol’ Lindy. “Roosevelt will mop the floor with him,” dismisses Herman.
Then Lindbergh wins. Roth got to that plot point in the second sentence of his 2004 novel, which was considered a master’s minor work until it became prophecy. The book unfolded as an alternate memoir, narrated by grown-up Philip, the family still called Roth. The adaptation moves freely among the renamed Levins and branches off to follow Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) and Bess’ sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder).
The miniseries (which debuts March 16 on HBO) was created by David Simon and Ed Burns, gods forever for collaborating on The Wire. That metropolitan epic ended in 2008, and Simon filled the last decade with open-world dramas Treme and The Deuce. The Plot Against America might seem conventional by comparison. Its period setting provides the obvious bad guys, and this isn’t even the only current dystopian TV series in which the nice characters ponder escape to Canada. But Simon and Burns craft their story with remarkable texture, tracking the nation’s downward spiral from inside a besieged family’s living room.
Spector makes Herman a proud American with a pugilistic sense of pride, his stubborn grin both inspiring and exasperating. Bess doesn’t have the luxury of her husband’s outrage, and Kazan’s performance is a masterpiece of emotional precision, carefully balancing fear and frustration behind steely parental reserve. Past a certain point in the fourth episode, I started crying every time the camera cut to a close-up on Bess: That’s how palpably Kazan embodies a mom protecting her children from a world gone mad. (On my mind as a new parent, I guess — but it’ll be wrong if she doesn’t get an Emmy.)
Other characters wander far afield. Alvin is an angry young man who wants to kill him some Nazis, and Boyle plays him with a dangerously sensual charm. Evelyn falls under the charismatic spell of Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro). He’s an aristocratic Jewish cowboy, with a South Carolina drawl and a horse he rides around suburban Jersey. He’s also the token Jew in Lindbergh’s administration, and he initiates a federal program with the Orwellian moniker Just Folks, designed to bring “city dwellers” (read: Jews) to the “real America” (read: KKK-friendly towns without delis). The program evolves into outright resettlement, sending Jewish families to distant locales like Kentucky. Ryder’s finger-in-an-electric-socket quiver turns insidiously poignant, as Evelyn finds herself smiling at soirees with history’s most infamous Jew-haters.
The Plot Against America builds its vision of oppression gradually. Summit Avenue empties of children. Swastikas deface Jewish graves. The police nod knowingly at violent counter-protesters, shades of Hong Kong. I swear you can see the adults’ hair starting to go gray. The final hour is one of the most breathtakingly tense episodes of television I’ve ever seen, carrying you on a dark journey through a country on fire.
Don’t expect a political fable built on pleasing-to-all-audiences vagueness. Canada is a refuge; Kentucky is death. Yet this is more than outraged polemic. Burns and Simon honor the biographical depth of Roth’s novel even as they update it to our more ambiguously terrorized times. The Levins are caught up in a nightmare — Robertson gives maybe the best scared-kid performance since Danny Lloyd in The Shining — but there’s an inviting warmth here, too. A son sees his father clearly for the first time. A mother comforts a lost child. Parents struggle with adversity they never want their kids to understand. Is America itself just a comfortable bedtime story, empty ideals awaiting the violent moment when the mask comes off? Plot is too tough-minded to deliver simple hope, but it’s openhearted enough to build an inspiring portrait of a family struggling to survive the days of perpetual fear. Their love is the real America, and no s—hole president will ever take that from us. A
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