‘The Plot Against America’ Imagines What a Fascist United States Would Have Looked Like With Disturbing Power
What if? That is the ultimate question posed by alternate histories. HBO’s “The Plot Against America” is a richly imagined limited series that arrives by chance just when we enter a time of collective crisis. It poses the scenario of fascism taking power in the United States during World War II. We’re not fighting Hitler in this eerie phantasmagoria, but become allies. While it is set in a Norman Rockwell America of the 1940s, there is little doubt of its intentions as a commentary on our turbulent moment. It’s based on a novel by the late great American author Philip Roth, published during those uncertain days of the George W. Bush White House, the Iraq War and the shadow of 9/11. It was seen as purposefully relevant then and like all timeless art has not lost its power.
It begins in 1940 in New Jersey. In a working class Jewish neighborhood the Levin family lives a regular American life while keeping track of the news. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) works in an office and is disturbed by the rise of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), a rabid anti-Semite now running for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lindbergh is running an anti-war agenda, demanding FDR stay out of the European war initiated by Nazi Germany. Jews in the U.S. know how Hitler’s regime has been rampaging against the Jews of Germany, but for now it feels distant except to a committed anti-fascist like Herman. Tensions rise in the Levin home whenever Lindbergh speaks on the radio, but wife Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan) attempts to keep the peace while raising sons Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Phillip (Azhy Robertson). But when Lindbergh wins the election politics soon intrude more directly in the Levin home. A nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), goes to Europe to help the British fight Hitler, while Elizabeth’s spinster sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) falls for Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a respected public figure who not only backs Lindbergh but joins his staff. Slowly but surely, the America the Levins once knew turns into a dark and threatening place.
“The Plot Against America” never once feels as if it is aware that its version of history is complete fiction. This adds to its subtly nightmarish quality. The Roth novel is turned into immersive TV by Ed Burns and David Simon, writers on the taught “The Wire.” They treat the material as a serious period piece, avoiding the flashy sci-fi style of other alternate histories such as Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle.” The Levins function like the actual microcosmic biography of a family, which makes them wholly relatable because they are us. We are all helpless viewers watching history unfold from our living rooms. But we can also not escape the times and the utter horror of the Levins’ situation is how the news on the radio slowly begins creeping into their lives. Only Herman seems to realize the stakes when he hears Lindbergh decry Jews as pro-war agitators who refuse to “assimilate” into American life. Elizabeth is not totally blind; she remembers growing up in a neighborhood as the only Jewish family. Some of the visuals are as if Norman Rockwell paintings were turned into darker imaginings of a fascist USA. The Levins will drive down a street and see the local Germans clinking beer mugs and cheering Hitler while giving them suspicious looks. A visit to the Lincoln Memorial turns ominous when Herman makes anti-Lindbergh remarks near suburban-looking supporters of the celebrity president. There are no SS uniforms or Storm Troopers marching down Jersey, “The Plot Against America” understands how fascism as a form of thinking operates, adapting itself to whatever its host culture happens to be. Newsreel footage is manipulated to make us believe a President Lindbergh is shaking hands with Adolf Hitler, as Herman helplessly watches from inside a movie theater. It’s done so flawlessly anyone unaware of World War II history might just fall for it.
But it is the refined quality of the writing and acting that make this a superb miniseries. If the period details are rich it is how Roth and then the filmmakers imagine the characters that truly make this vision believable. If the Levins are your typical ’40s working class family, then Rabbi Bengelsdorf, played with a great southern drawl by John Turturro, is the deluded collaborator during every unsavory regime. Wynona Ryder’s naïve Evelyn is intimidated but turned on by his cocky intellect which is blind to Lindbergh’s agenda concerning Jews. Speeches by Bengelsdorf are brilliantly written, as if taken from actual moments in time, which makes them even more disturbing. When Bengelsdorf heads a program to send Jewish youth into the American farmlands to better connect them with “proper” U.S. culture, it’s imagined with a terrifying authenticity. Anthony Boyle’s Alvin takes his beliefs to the next level, crossing into Canada to help the British fight the Nazis and suffering later on because of it. Not only physically, but once Linderbgh turns the FBI into a low-key Gestapo keeping track of potential dissidents. Side characters in the neighborhood are crafted with enough detail to make them as recognizable as family after a while. The world of this series becomes immersive by having the force of real, dreamlike memories.
Of course even more striking is how this material is so potent it is easy to turn it into a metaphor for now. A celebrity president rails against minority groups and foreigners, promotes isolationism while riling up mobs capable of violence. Simply replace “Jews” with “Hispanics,” “Muslims” or “illegal immigrants” and you understand who Burns and Simon are alluding to with this work. Herman’s dinner table arguments with everyone about politics are taking place in someone’s home right now. The FBI never became the Gestapo, but there are communities living under fear of quick and merciless deportation. The best science fiction or alternative realities are not mere fiction for their own sake, but fantasy mirror reflections of their times. We have not had pogroms yet in this country, but when Lindbergh inspires them in the show they are imagined with a vivid and unsettling plausibility. Yet before that daily life is portrayed with such sunny normality, the kids go snooping around the neighborhood, the men work at the docks, others place bets, that the fascist shadow makes itself known only gradually. Then there comes a reckoning, and even Elizabeth finds herself having to make tough choices about how to even relate to her sister anymore.
“The Plot Against America” is visceral anti-fascist art, but it is also one of the season’s best six hours of television. All six chapters are beautifully crafted and performed, inviting us to follow its fictional family within a history that thankfully never took place. And yet that’s part of its haunting effect. What if it had happened? What if it still could?
“The Plot Against America” premieres March 16 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.