HBO’s The Plot Against America, based on the Philip Roth novel, brings together Winona Ryder and John Turturro in a reimagining of America’s World War II history. Now the slickly produced series is more pertinent to current times than the creators could ever have imagined. By Peter Craven.

The Plot Against America

Winona Ryder and Zoe Kazan in The Plot Against America.
Winona Ryder and Zoe Kazan in The Plot Against America.
Credit: Michele K. Short

What an extraordinary proposition it must have seemed: Philip Roth’s counterfactual 2004 novel The Plot Against America, the one where Charles Lindbergh, aviator extraordinaire, becomes a fascist, Hitler-friendly president. The TV adaptation is co-created and produced by David Simon, who with The Wire showed how television could take it up to cinema. (Plot collaborator Ed Burns also wrote for The Wire.) And what a subject in the year when that rough beast Donald Trump seemed to be slouching his way towards a second stint of the United States presidency. Many Americans who might never have seen themselves as especially left wing must have brooded in the manner of that old Jackson Browne line, “Oh it’s so far the other way my country’s gone”.

Well, all has changed now, changed utterly. The world is all but holding hands, Mecca is as deserted as St Peter’s Square while we face a pandemic, and governments everywhere, formerly committed to the regnancy of the market, are exercising quasi-wartime control – closing theatres, schools, restaurants and galleries – while bracing for recession, if not depression. And suddenly, with the touch of a black magic wand, we are back to big government, with handouts and massive plans for hospitals to be built overnight and giant schemes for containment.

So The Plot Against America is falling on us in a wholly unprecedented moment, though one in which – in the absence of collective entertainment – television is looking like the only show in town.

And there’s no denying The Plot Against America is lavish, thoughtful, beautifully accurate television of its kind. I had forgotten almost everything about Roth’s novel and when I watched the first four hours of six episodes of the Simon–Burns adaptation – so meticulous in its quiet, so dark-hued in its articulation – the original naturally came back to me while also making clear why it had slipped from my memory, even in tone. This is not the colossal, tumultuous Roth of American Pastoral, the master at war with half his own instincts to mastery. This is a quiet, slow-burning, liberal Roth – Jewish, sceptical, shrewd – who knows what a hard-won thing political freedom is and how fragile.

This is the alternative history of a man who knows his own mind and the potential horror that can come when a feasible dark side topples the balance of national contradictions.

In this HBO adaptation we see an absolutely credible Lindbergh talking in clipped early 20th-century tones about the danger of the Jewish influence – as he apparently did – and the stage is set for a presidency that will keep the US out of the war and use American Jews as collaborationists in a neutrality that will allow the European concentration camps to proceed.

Visually, The Plot Against America unfolds very much through a glass darkly. Much of what we see on screen is shadowed, then illuminated with deep gold filters, so that when Winona Ryder – who plays a ditzy, middle-aged Jewish woman intent on not being left on the shelf – emerges into daylight looking creamy and radiant, it’s like a revelation of loveliness. And that’s true in almost equal measure of the period cars that are given a gleaming technicolour radiance.

We are conscious at every point of a kind of homage to the aesthetic riches of a yesteryear in which boys wore Norman Rockwell caps, where women had a heightened 1940s dressiness in their hats and dresses and stockings, where men moved with a masculine sturdiness.

There’s an archaeology in this, which is admirable even if it’s not exciting, and that’s true of the story that unfolds, drawing on Roth’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey. There’s an utterly solid-looking middle class – in the lower American sense – a far from rich family in which Bess (Zoe Kazan) and Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) bring up their two young boys, firmly and sanely, while keeping their eyes open to the world around them. There’s a job for a young nephew (Anthony Boyle) who ends up being exploited by an unscrupulous buddy and there’s a parting of the ways.

Meanwhile, the paterfamilias can’t get the smell of anti-Semitism out of his nostrils when he hears Lindbergh speak. Herman is appalled when Lindbergh wins the presidency against Roosevelt and announces he will make no attempt to help Britain and Churchill meet the onslaught of the Nazi persecutors of the Jews.

But everything is done quietly. Ryder, who’s initially bedding some Italian–American who is never going to leave his wife and family, ends up in the arms of John Turturro, a Southern-accented rabbi who sees it as his sworn duty to give fealty to Lindbergh’s presidency. And there is a rich weirdness in hearing the magnificence of the prayers of the Pesach and the Kiddush at a funeral, recited, like the Latin of the old-style church, as one of the intimately familiar exoticisms of our culture. To have this in the context of the collusion with evil or its near neighbour, however, is disquieting indeed.

Turturro is magnificent in his oleaginous Southern way, reverencing his Confederate ancestor while admitting his cause was unjust. Ryder gives a superb performance – all soft talk and startled eyes – and the whole cast act like angels with a superb understated naturalism that seems at every point to keep the ghosts of the past intact, even though the battlements they have to stalk never quite loom up.

Spector and Kazan are as good as they possibly could be at individualising a decent couple in a time of muffled darkness and perfidy. He’s a superb leading man, handsome with an unselfconscious tacit strength; she’s natural and shrewd without sentimentality.

The first four episodes of The Plot Against America unfold with a notable absence of hysteria and although the Simon–Burns version follows the outlines of the book, it actually has greater resonance in its quiet sure-footed way. The Levins’ nephew, Alvin, goes off to Canada to enlist in World War II and subsequently is terribly wounded. The family go on a visit to Washington and are abused by an anti-Semitic jerk but are ultimately asked to leave their hotel by a civil-looking manager. Then again, there’s a tour guide who stands up for a sane and compassionate version of the American way.

The logic of The Plot Against America is like a modulated and partial version of how Nazism must have got into the bloodstream of some fraction of Germans who would have been appalled at the prospect. The elder of the two Levin sons, played by Caleb Malis, has a wonderful time in Kentucky, staying with a bluegrass, “real” American farming family, and tells his father he will never forgive him after he is not allowed to be the special guest of the First Lady – this is the consequence of Winona Ryder’s intervention – at a reception at the White House for that Nazi German lord of treacherous diplomacy Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The Plot Against America is peculiar television, though, partly because its consistent restraint, eloquent shadowy understatement and modulation of the image of how a lost time could have been so much worse is done with an austerity that is so tactful in its authority. The series exhibits so much power of design in order to avoid melodrama that it’s enough to make you hunger for The Boys from Brazil.

It’s as if Simon and Burns have elected for a monk-like asceticism in the way they have served Roth’s vision and been slavish in the realism they have developed to bolster the believability of this nearly persuasive image of a history that might have been so much less honourable.

It’s good, of course, to see the flame of honour burning in a flickering world. The way in which Jewish Americanness is established in The Plot Against America with an absolute and unselfconscious centrality is in its way no small thing. But this is a saga about virtue in a world that might have been even more haywire and horrible. It is a laudable subject but – as with the novel from which it derives – the vision rendered is a bit painstaking. None of which is to deny the burnished grandeur of the end product. Nor the fact that we have something like this to watch at this new, absolutely unpredictable moment of alarm in which the memory of a man such as Roosevelt looms larger than we ever could have imagined.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2020 as "The Plot strickens".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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