‘The Plot Against America’ a compelling vision of what could have been
HBO’s Emmy-caliber miniseries imagines a 1940s U.S. sympathetic to Nazis and plagued by anti-Semitism.
“Tonight, we have taken back America.” – Charles Lindbergh after defeating FDR to become the president of the United States in “The Plot Against America.”
We’re in the midst of a mini-Golden Age for the “alternate history” genre of streaming series.
Amazon Prime’s “The Man in the High Castle” is set in a parallel post-World War II universe in which the United States is divided into the American Reich and the Japanese Pacific States.
On the Apple TV+ series “For All Mankind,” Russia was first to put a man on the moon, Nixon pulled the troops from Vietnam early and Ted Kennedy canceled a trip to Chappaquiddick.
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In HBO’s “The Watchmen,” Vietnam is the 51st state and Robert Redford has been president since 1992.
Now comes arguably the best and most substantial alt history series of the bunch: HBO’s six-part series “The Plot Against America,” set in an America in which American hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh soundly defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election after a campaign stressing U.S. isolation from the war in Europe — and thinly veiled messages of anti-Semitism, which have served to stoke the fire of hatred and violence against Jews in their own home country.
In an early scene, we get a glimpse of the unrest to come when a working-class Jewish family goes house-hunting in Union, New Jersey. A local who spots them shouts: “Hey Juden! Wrong turn!”
And this is before Lindbergh wins the election.
Based on a 2004 novel by Philip Roth and adapted for television by “The Wire” collaborators David Simon and Ed Burns, “The Plot Against America” is a pedigreed project featuring Emmy-quality work on every level — including spectacularly good performances by Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle and Winona Ryder.
Charles Lindbergh is actually a secondary character in “The Plot Against America,” looming for the most part over events as a voice on the radio, a presence on newsreel footage shown in the theaters and as the topic of heated discussion. (In limited screen time, Ben Cole is excellent as Lindbergh, who comes across as a man of presidential charisma — and a chilling affinity for the Nazis and their warped view of the world.)
The story is told through the experiences of an extended, working-class Jewish family and the people in their lives. Morgan Spector gives a screen-commanding performance as Herman Levin, who is filled with dread in the days leading up to the election and can’t contain his outrage every time anti-Semitism rears its ugly head. Zoe Kazan is Herman’s wife Elizabeth, who at first is embarrassed by her husband’s public displays and says maybe things won’t be so bad after all — but as events escalate and predominantly Jewish neighborhoods across the country are targeted for violence, Elizabeth becomes a force to be reckoned with. Nobody is going to mess with her family.
Intertwining subplots follow the paths of Elizabeth’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder) — who has never married but has found love with the influential and politically ambitious Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who has aligned himself with the Lindbergh administration — and Herman’s grown nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who defies America’s isolationist policy and joins the Canadian Army so he can fight Nazis in Europe.
John Turturro is magnificently irritating as the Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who has an exaggerated Southern drawl, likes to ride his horse around New Jersey and has convinced himself the best way to look out for his community is by aligning himself with the president and rationalizing Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism. Ryder is heartbreaking as Evelyn, who clings to her relationship with Bengelsdorf even as she knows deep down it’s a betrayal to her family and to herself.
“The Plot Against America” has its moments of shock and high drama, but it’s mostly a slow and deliberate build, filled with smaller but equally stirring touches. It’s a beautiful-looking series — lightly dipped in sepia memory-tones and featuring meticulously appointed, era-perfect sets, which gives it an air of docudrama authenticity even as we’re traveling down a parallel-universe road.
In one particular haunting and gorgeous and melancholy sequence, Frank Sinatra’s “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You” plays on the soundtrack as we see a montage of election night moments. It’s an unforgettable and quietly chilling vignette.
By the time we get to the event-filled series finale, set in the fall of 1942, America is in a state of chaos. Walter Winchell, a prominent critic of Lindbergh’s and a voice against the rise of fascism in the country, has been assassinated. (He brought it upon himself with all the rabble-rousing, comments one Lindbergh supporter.) The Klan is becoming ever more bold and heinous — murdering Jewish Americans and burning down Jewish-owned businesses without much fear of repercussions.
“Pittsburgh is burning,” says one prominent character, and it’s not an exaggeration.
The final scenes of “The Plot Against America” might not offer easy, dramatically resounding resolutions on every front. I would have liked to see the story continue — but that’s also a testimony to how powerful and compelling this thought-provoking alt-history journey has been from the start.