'The Plot Against America': TV Review

Flawed, but finely crafted and chillingly timely.
3/16/2020

David Simon adapts Philip Roth's alt-history novel about Charles Lindbergh's rise to the presidency and its impact on one Jewish family in an HBO limited series starring Winona Ryder, John Turturro and Zoe Kazan.

Philip Roth's 2004 novel The Plot Against America was a cautionary tale about anti-Semitism in the U.S. and the dangers of a cult-of-personality presidency in which a politically unseasoned celebrity favored for his "America First!" nationalism forges questionable international alliances and enables the worst instincts of his partners and supporters, setting off a wave of hate crimes further emboldened by "But the economy is booming!" platitudes.

Terrifying fantasy. Right?

So what do you do when speculative fiction no longer feels so speculative? That's the challenge facing The Wire collaborators David Simon and Ed Burns in their HBO limited-series adaptation of The Plot Against America. Simon and Burns aren't always able to conquer the challenges of Roth's text — it's a great book, if not the most fluidly transferable story to the small screen — but they've certainly crafted a six-hour nightmare with an insidious creep. Some viewers are likely to complain that nothing sufficiently dramatic or awful is happening — and they'll surely be wrong — before the series twists the narrative knife by the end.

Roth's novel is split between a third-person explanation of the alt-history rise of aviator Charles Lindbergh from national hero to the presidency in 1940 on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of World War II and the more intimate story of the Levin family. The latter is filtered largely through the eyes of young Phillip, whose inability to completely process everything that's happening around him complements that of the reader.

Simon and Burns still have Phillip (Marriage Story's Azhy Robertson) at the center, but they've shifted the focus more to the entire clan, including news-obsessed patriarch Herman (Morgan Spector), increasingly concerned matriarch Bess (Zoe Kazan), credulous older son Sandy (Caleb Malis) and hot-headed cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle), each forced to deal with the Lindbergh presidency and its ramifications in their own way. Also more central in this take is Bess' sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder), a spinster by the standards of the period, but on the verge of finding love with Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), whose capacity as a Lindbergh apologist threatens to tear the family apart.

Radio broadcasts and newsreels, already a major part of the novel, replace historical overview and limit audience awareness of events to that of the Levins, complete with the dissemination of partial information or information through figures like Walter Winchell. You'll be able to understand the parallels Simon and Burns are making to the way we consume news in 2020.

Like the fable or allegory of the frog being boiled alive in increasingly heated water, much of the running time in The Plot Against America is dedicated to a slow-but-steady encroachment on civil rights, specifically those of Jews. So if you go into The Plot Against America using the more instantly sensationalistic alt-history The Man in the High Castle as your model, you may be underwhelmed. The things happening in the early installments are meant to invite not exactly ambiguity, but moral negotiation. Does keeping the country out of war justify abandoning our allies and/or appeasing a clear enemy? Is appeasing an enemy condoning their values? Does condoning their values empower those within our borders who share those values? What speech does that empowerment enable? What action does that speech encourage? When are government programs allowing kids to experience "real America" benign and when does voluntary and then involuntary displacement begin? When do you take action to protect yourself or to absent yourself? And when is it too late? When are you boiled?

Simon and Burns' approach may well disturb from the beginning. I watched the entire series with a knot in my stomach that built from discomfort to horror. But if you watch The Plot Against America and ever feel the temptation to, for a second, think, "Oh, that's not so bad" or, "Maybe the Lindbergh side has a point," that's not unintentional; the series is hoping to push you into a place of self-examination: What are my values and where would my limits and limitations be? 

The writers have wisely made structural changes, especially to the second half of the book, though they didn't necessarily fix the momentum issues with Roth's ending. Initially the events in the series are mostly straightforward depictions of the buildup to the 1940 election, which ought to be chilling enough, and its impacts, culminating in a marvelously depicted family trip to Washington in the third episode. The expansion of the story outside of Phillip's point of view includes fleshing out the relationship between Lionel and Evelyn and spending more time with Alvin, the character whose arc Roth was obviously most interested in, illustrating a contrast between Jewish intellectualism and a more physical, military kind of Jewish action.

This allows Boyle to give what is probably the series' most dynamic performance, certainly the one with the most range, since Spector and Kazan's characters are, for long stretches, restricted to variations on similar responses — he's dogmatic, she's worried and sad-eyed. Spector and especially Kazan are still very good, and I appreciated that there were just enough beats of warmth between the characters to give the series some heart.

Along those same lines, Ryder gets a sufficient number of scenes illustrating Evelyn's life before encountering Lionel that her transition into zealotry makes sense, albeit in a broadly played way. Even with a bit more exposure than in the book, I don't think we're ever really supposed to understand Rabbi Lionel, and Turturro's own broad performance — he gives the Southern character quite the accent — feels right on the edge of caricature.

Overall, it's an impressive ensemble with standouts including Simon favorites like David Krumholtz and Michael Kostroff, a great one-episode guest turn from Michael Cerveris and, as the Levin's perpetually sad neighbor, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch veteran Jacob Laval, who sells a surprisingly amount of emotion in later episodes.

Directed by Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme, The Plot Against America is a uniformly handsome piece of television, blending production design, cinematography and seamless special effects to build out the world of 1940s New Jersey. It's a period recreation that suffers a little from Shiny Car Syndrome, but I loved how both directors concentrated on the smaller details of family life and Jewish life, such that characters' degree of Yiddish fluency or awareness of proper responses in the Aleinu prayer are pivotal. The series may not exactly be a thriller, but Spiro's work on the Washington episode and Schlamme's handling of the myriad nightmares in the breathless 72-minute finale have that energy.

The 16 years since since The Plot Against America was published have changed the story's impact and resonance from an almost sci-fi-like warning to a queasy kind of recognition. These six hours should freak you out; if they don't, that demands introspection, too.

Cast: Winona Ryder, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis and John Turturro
Creators: David Simon and Ed Burns, from the novel by Philip Roth
Directors: Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)