Culture

Television

A nation’s convulsions: ‘The Plot Against America’

By Craig Mathieson
HBO’s adaptation of the Philip Roth novel is a contemporary allegory with a terrifying slow burn

Alternate histories are designed to offer us a degree of protection: this is a story about what could have happened, but thankfully didn’t. But the past doesn’t feel like it has the safety on in The Plot Against America, HBO’s riveting adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel about an isolationist American embracing anti-Semitism and fascism in the early 1940s. With a slow burn of menace and disbelief, the show refuses to be confined by its impressive period detail. The failings this drama draws on, not just political but also personal, are still relevant now. If anything, they’re more apparent.

“Tonight we have taken back America,” declares the triumphant US president-elect on the night of his victory. That could be Donald Trump in 2016, but here it’s the fictional Charles Lindbergh (played by Ben Cole) in 1940, a national icon since making the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927 and now a Republican outsider running on a platform of keeping America out of World War Two. In his stump speech, which he delivers at an airfield after making a dramatic entrance by flying in, he insists that the nation’s choice is “between Lindbergh and war”. As Nazi Germany conquers much of Europe and the continent’s Jewish population becomes a target, Lindbergh denies Franklin Delano Roosevelt a third term. Winning Florida puts him over the top, just to add to the feeling of déjà vu.

From this turning point, America veers to the right. But that movement – with the acquiescence of corporations, the vindication of agitators and the realignment of official authority – is always seen through the lens of the Levin family, tenants of the upper floors of a house on Summit Avenue in the city of Newark, New Jersey. Roth’s history was counterfactual, but the setting in the novel was autobiographical, with a Roth family whose names and circumstances, right down to the younger of two sons being named Philip, matched his own childhood (the television adaptation changes their surname to Levin).

The dislocating, seething sense that the country has turned on families like the Levins bears down on individual shoulders. An angry father, insurance agent Herman (Morgan Spector), rails against “Lucky Lindy”, while his wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), is quickly fearful of what could happen; she wants to move to Canada while he’s still complaining that Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic dog whistles aren’t called out because “everyone thinks he doesn’t mean what he says”. Teenager Sandy (Caleb Malis), a budding artist, is fascinated by the iconography of Lindbergh, sketching him with rapt fascination, while 10-year-old Philip (Azhy Robertson), a receptor for his parents’ angst, is confused and upset. The rote contours of American life, which he took for granted, have inexplicably shifted.

The six episodes of The Plot Against America, which screens here on Foxtel, were created by Baltimore duo David Simon and Ed Burns, the former journalist and police detective respectively whose experiences and observations informed The Wire, a crime drama that over five seasons beginning in 2002 became an immense critique of America’s urban inequality. Simon is attuned to how communities collectively function, how they breathe in and lash out. Here the textures of everyday life – the banter of friends or the street games of children – are rich and enveloping. They look and sound real, and in doing so serve as the ordinary counterpoint for extraordinary events. When Lindbergh meets with Hitler, shaking his hands for the newsreel cameras, the rebukes of Herman and his neighbours out on Summit Avenue are vitriolic and unadorned. These lives never break off into oratory.

Extended members of the Levin clan supply contrary takes, with their various arguments wielding the potency that comes from family holding nothing back. Bess’s sister, Evelyn Finkel (Winona Ryder), becomes involved with an ambitious rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who publicly endorses Lindbergh and joins his administration to run the Office of American Absorption, while Herman’s nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), makes his stance clear by joining the Canadian army to fight in the war. The anger that surges through the story rears up in unexpected and compelling ways, as do moments of relief. It helps that the performances are never less than solid and often exemplary.

Nonetheless, beginning in June of 1940 and gracefully unfolding over two and a half years, the narrative is immersed in the complexities of the Jewish-American experience. Bess and Herman’s generation are the children of refugees who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe; they know persecution is a timeworn reality for Jews, but they can’t fully comprehend that the America they’re invested in could fracture so easily. Herman’s defiance is both noble and exasperating – as part of the next generation, Sandy rebels, calling his father “a dictator”. The changes they live under begin slowly, with a veneer of politeness. On a family trip to Washington DC’s monuments to American democracy, their hotel cancels their stay, claiming a double booking. When Herman objects, the police are called and they give “Mr Levin” a sneering order to leave. The camera cuts to his sons, bewildered and worried, watching out of their car’s rear window.

The fear that such moments stoke always works on that intimate level. There’s never a sense that the Levins are at the centre of this unspooling crisis, or that they can directly amend it. That’s what moves this period piece from the realm of historic what-if to contemporary allegory; a willing leader is all any civil society needs to remove the mask of decency and acceptance. With this evocative American example, Simon and Burns also salt the earth with issues that have only become magnified as the subsequent decades have passed. The Plot Against America is a terrifying slow burn, with a finale that is one of the tensest episodes of television I’ve ever seen. It illustrates a nation’s convulsions with granular detail. “I will always love you, but I will never forgive you,” Bess tells Evelyn, but she could easily be speaking to America instead.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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