Can it happen here? HBO’s unsettling ‘The Plot Against America’ says yes

The Plot Against America is alt-history about what could have happened to a Jewish family in the early '40s if the antisemitic hero aviator Charles Lindbergh had beaten Roosevelt for the presidency.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (photo credit: FLICKR)
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
(photo credit: FLICKR)
“It can’t happen here? It is happening here!” says a character in the HBO six-part miniseries adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, which will begin showing on March 17 on HOT, YES and Cellcom in Israel.
The novel was adapted for television by The Wire creator David Simon, whose blog is titled “The Audacity of Despair,” which gives an indication of why he was the perfect person to bring this bleak and complex story to the small screen.
The Plot Against America is alt-history about what could have happened to a Jewish family in the early 1940s if the antisemitic hero aviator Charles Lindbergh had challenged Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency and won. It is reminiscent of Robert Rossen’s great 1949 film, All the King’s Men, based on Huey Long, about the appeal and corruption of a populist politician.
The series focuses on one Newark family, who in the book were called the Roths but here are the Levins. Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bess (Zoe Kazan) and their two children, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson), are a close-knit middle-class family who are doing very well, but they are immediately wary when Lindbergh (Ben Cole) begins his run for president. The handsome aviator is a beloved celebrity who flies into each campaign stop and gives a brief, beguiling speech in each location saying the election is not between Lindbergh and Roosevelt but between “Lindbergh and war.”
In order to dispel the understandable perception that he is an antisemite, Lindbergh hires a rabbi to speak on his behalf and make him seem more sympathetic. That rabbi is Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a smooth-talking widower from South Carolina who is more than up to the task. He is brought into the story through his romance and partnership with Evelyn (Winona Ryder), Bess’s older sister, who is unhappily single and delighted to have attracted the attention of this powerful rabbi.
Alvin (Anthony Boyle), Herman’s orphan nephew with whom he is very close, leaves a life of menial jobs and scrapes with the law to flee to Canada and join the military so he can fight Hitler. He tells a British girlfriend, “I’m a Jew because I was born a Jew and this whole f**king world wishes I wasn’t. They want us gone. All of us. And they drive themselves crazy because after all this time, they still can’t get rid of us.”
Herman, who is a huge fan of radio-show host Walter Winchell and listens religiously to his broadcasts, opposes Lindbergh but doesn’t know what to do. He hopes he can keep his job at an insurance company and insists on taking the family to Washington, DC, on vacation, even though Bess is uneasy about leaving the safety of their predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She feels they should flee to Canada, as their friend Shepsie (Michael Kostroff, whom fans of The Wire will recognize as the crooked lawyer Maurice Levy) does.
As Lindbergh takes power, the Levins are all affected by the new political climate in different ways and the series shows how politics can change the lives of even the most apolitical  people.
‘THE PLOT Against America’ is very cinematic, with beautiful cinematography and impeccable production design. Thanks to the careful rendering of the novel, this family’s Judaism, where the talk turns to baseball as soon as the Shabbat blessings are recited, feels very real. All the actors do good work here.
The young actors Caleb Malis and Azhy Robertson are natural and appealing in their roles, and I wish a little more of the story had been told from their point of view.
Morgan Spector and Winona Ryder (whose real last name is Horowitz) are compelling. Spector played the role of Dante, Carrie Mathison’s lover and sometime adversary on the previous season of Homeland, but this part should make him a star. Ryder’s career got back on track in 2015 after Simon cast her in a key role in Show Me a Hero, and she shines here as a woman whose desperation to be loved makes her abandon all judgement.
But the standout is Turturro as the rabbi who allies with Lindbergh. He is so charming and intense as he persuades and sermonizes, you almost find yourself sympathizing with him.
The Plot Against the America, which was written in 2004, is eerily prescient of the situation in the US today, where real-estate developer and television celebrity Donald Trump won the presidency using the exact slogan - “America First” - that Lindbergh popularized with his America First Committee, an influential group founded in 1940 that pressured to the US government to remain neutral in World War II. Just as there has been a recent uptick in antisemitic incidents, and Nazis in the US were emboldened to march in 2017, shouting, “The Jews will not replace us!” the series details a chillingly plausible story about how antisemitic elements could gradually rise up against American Jews.
The first couple of episodes may seem a bit staid, since there is a fair amount of exposition and many characters are introduced. Keeping track of all of them demands a bit of patience. Even though the series is six hours long, the final episodes feel rushed at times as many plot threads are resolved quickly. But overall, the story plays out in a slow burn and picks up steam with each episode. It’s a tribute to Simon’s pacing that when things get really tough for the Levins, it’s absolutely plausible because it has been set up so carefully.
Watching The Plot Against America is a little like having a nightmare, where you are terrified and search for a clue to tell you that you are just dreaming. Most viewers will find little comfort when this unsettling and provocative series ends.