Winona Ryder and John Turturro star in a new TV series adapted from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel. Its bleak alt-history is a little too close to home, writes Caryn James.
Perhaps because our own times seem bleak, alternate histories are flourishing on screen, ranging from the dystopian, piercingly real Handmaid’s Tale to the apocalyptic, mind-bending Watchmen and most recently Hunters, with cartoonish characters pursuing resurgent Nazis. All reassure us ‘At least that didn’t happen’. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, the HBO series The Plot Against America has an impeccable literary source. Philip Roth’s 2004 novel posits that aviator Charles Lindbergh, a national hero, Nazi sympathiser and isolationist – all of those things historically true – became US president in the early 1940s, with Hitler on the rise.
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The story is explosive. An ordinary, working-class Jewish family in New Jersey – Herman and Bess Levin, their two young sons and their relatives – grapple with the fallout of an anti-Semite in the White House. The show’s high-profile creators are David Simon and Ed Burns, the team behind the classic series The Wire. And the performances are stunning, especially Zoe Kazan’s as the fearful but realistic Bess and Winona Ryder’s as her self-deluding sister, Evelyn. So why is this uneven miniseries far less compelling than it sounds on paper?
It becomes more chilling the more it departs from reality, with terrible events that are not unimaginable
Part of the problem lies with history itself. What Roth imagined as outlandish in 2004 is all too familiar now. Lindbergh’s real-life isolationist slogan ‘America First’ has been appropriated by Donald Trump. In the years since the novel’s publication, ethnic hatred and white supremacism have been resurgent around the world. In many ways, Roth’s history doesn’t seem alternate at all.
That problem is compounded by the show’s earnest, dutiful approach. The first three of its six episodes are not bad if you have a high tolerance for didactic kitchen-sink drama. The last three gain in intensity. The series becomes more chilling the more it departs from reality, with terrible events that are not unimaginable but still unrealised.
As the story slowly builds, Herman remains a fiery idealist, passionately and effectively played by Morgan Spector. Lindbergh is a threat to the family’s upwardly-mobile life and their civil rights, but Herman is determined to stand his ground. Bess wants above all to protect her family. Kazan brilliantly and sensitively makes her a woman of her time. As anti-Semitism becomes more virulent, Bess thoughtfully chooses when to argue with her husband, when to let him lead, and when it’s time to insist that if he doesn’t move the family out of danger and into Canada, she will. Their adolescent son, Sheldon, sees Lindbergh only as a dashing pilot, conveying the perils of celebrity hero-worship. The younger son, Philip, takes it all in, an increasingly frightened child. The brown palette of the Levins’s world looks perfect in its drabness, from the shabby but pristine rowhouse to Bess’s practical cotton housedresses.
The extended family comes to include Lionel Bengelsdorf, a rabbi with Confederate ancestors, who is also an outspoken Lindbergh supporter, swallowing the idea that being pro-Hitler is a justified defence against communism. Played by John Turturro with a dripping Southern accent, Bengelsdorf is a problematic, unexplored character. We never quite see why he is so gullible.
Evelyn, sophisticated and lonely, cares for her ailing mother. She eagerly becomes Bengelsdorf’s assistant and then his fiancée. Ryder is triumphant in a role much enhanced from the book, as she makes Evelyn’s self-delusion painfully clear. Bengelsdorf is rich, attentive, and has access to powerful people. Evelyn lets herself ignore all the political warning signs, and even enrols Sheldon in her fiancée’s ‘Just Folks’ program, sending Jewish children for a summer in the rural US in a barely-veiled attempt to dilute their ethnicity.
The conclusion is moving and more pessimistic about the possibilities for equality in the US than Roth was
But all this powerful acting is often saddled with sledgehammer dialogue drawing parallels to today. When swastikas are drawn on headstones at a Jewish cemetery, Herman’s brother Monty (David Krumholtz) blames the president. “They’ve always been here,” he says of the bigots, “but now it’s like they have permission to crawl out from under a rock”. Similar lines have echoed through real life in the past few years. When Monty comes to tolerate Lindbergh, Herman is outraged. “Stock market is up, profits are up,” he yells. “Everything else about Lindbergh, what he stands for, is forgotten!” That dialogue might as well be a giant finger pointing toward Trump. The line resonated more pointedly before the recent market collapse, of course. Even alternate histories have trouble keeping up.
Some scenes in the final episodes make it worth slogging through the early ones. Kazan is heartbreaking as she tries to calm a small boy on the phone, and fierce when she confronts her sister. When Lindbergh invites Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Von Ribbentrop, to a White House dinner, Lionel and Evelyn are guests, giving cover to the idea that the president can’t be anti-Semitic if he has invited a rabbi. Evelyn, blithely smiling, dances with Von Ribbentrop, her head so turned by the glamour that nothing else matters. At dinner Lionel quietly pushes aside the shrimp on his plate, and makes excuses when Lindbergh rudely snubs him. Here, finally, are dramatised scenes that are terrifying and eye-opening because they are so personal and specific. In those too-few moments, the series doesn’t have to tell us what to think.
The conclusion is moving and more pessimistic about the possibilities for equality in the US than Roth was. Yet even that sobering ending doesn’t escape the tone of a classroom lecture. The Plot Against America has high, half-realised ambitions. Preaching to its audience didn’t have to be one of them.
The Plot Against America premieres on HBO on 16 March.
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