Plot Against America: A Threat From Within

FREEDOM IS NEVER COMPLETELY WON. BUT IT CAN BE LOST.

This adaptation of the great 2004 Philip Roth novel changed a few things. In an interview with Vulture, David Simon talked about his meeting with Roth, where he told him that the ending of the novel didn’t seem right in the context of the miniseries. As he watched him nervously, afraid to compare himself with this titan of American literature, Roth kept rereading those final pages of his novel and eventually told Simon: ”It’s your problem now”. That was the permission Simon needed to write a new ending together with his The Wire collaborator Ed Burns. This time we wouldn’t know for sure that Roosevelt would come and save America. Will the nation be saved this November?

Speeches with anti-Semitic overtones
Newark, New Jersey, 1940. World War II has begun in Europe and America is debating what to do. The immensely popular aviation hero Charles Lindbergh makes frequently more political speeches. Some of them have decidedly anti-Semitic overtones, not lost on the Jewish community, including Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), an insurance agent. Like most Jews, he’s firmly in favor of President Roosevelt and doesn’t take Lindbergh seriously; how could this amateur and anti-Semite ever win a presidential election? But others close to Herman point out an obvious fact: ”Lindy” is beloved and admired, especially by conservative white voters.

At the same time, Evelyn Finkel (Winona Ryder), sister of Herman’s wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), is enchanted by a prominent rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who’s much older but charismatic and an early supporter of Lindbergh’s. The rabbi sees something in the heroic aviator that other Jews can’t seem to understand, and Evelyn agrees. When Lindbergh announces his candidacy for the presidency, Herman keeps underestimating him…

Capturing our crisis
My original question, can the nation be saved this November, is not a knee-jerk liberal reaction. The struggle against the corrupt, mean-spirited, lying, unpatriotic, selfish, intellectually vacant but street-savvy, despotic, empty shell of a man we know as Trump is too important to be painted as traditionally Democratic vs. Republican. That game ended in 2016 and this miniseries captures that crisis perfectly.

As in many of his previous novels, Roth reconnected with his past (the young boy played by Azhy Robertson is even called Philip) and the place where he grew up. That becomes the backdrop of a story where he imagined what might have happened if well-known American anti-Semites like Lindbergh and Henry Ford gained power. The result is frighteningly believable. It’s not spectacular, like the comparison between Nazis and aliens in V (1983), but subtle; when the Levins are discussing Canada as an option, we want to scream, yes, by all means run for your lives, but we understand why they hesitate. Nothing too bad has happened so far, has it? And then it does; tension runs high in those last two episodes.

What stays with me after the miniseries is the convincing depiction of how the rabbi is tricked into believing that supporting Lindbergh will benefit both Jews and America, and Herman’s exhausting obsession with the danger of ”Lindy”, so tragically similar to our current, necessary obsession with the madman in the White House.

Superior performances by several actors in the cast are obvious highlights, including Ryder as the gullible Evelyn, Spector as the crusading Herman and Kazan as Bess, who has a greater understanding of consequences than her stubborn, embarrassing husband… but still knows that he’s dead right.

The Plot Against America 2020-U.S. Made for TV. 360 min. Color. Created by David Simon, Ed Burns. Novel: Philip Roth. Cast: Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel), Morgan Spector (Herman Levin), Zoe Kazan (Elizabeth ”Bess” Levin), Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis… John Turturro.

Trivia: Originally shown in six episodes. Co-executive produced by Roth, Simon and Burns. 

Last word: “I didn’t do [the show] so I could write Jewish-Americans in a middle-class setting. I did it for the obvious political import. But for the first time in my writing life, I’ve been able to channel a certain socioreligious culture that’s second nature. I didn’t have to research the tone. Not only does Philip Roth lay it out beautifully in his work, but I could draw on a reservoir of memory of my parents and grandparents.” (Simon, Vulture)

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