Tuesday 5 May 2020

On Foxtel - Tom Ryan reviews the HBO series THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (Sc: David Simon & Ed Burns, USA, 2020)

“Nazis! I hate those guys.” 
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), spying the enemy 
in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade(1989)

The Plot Against America (2020, HBO via Fox Showcase in Australia) is set in a fictional past: the US during a two-year period between 1940 and 1942 when famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was elected to the presidency ahead of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But, at the same time, it deliberately insinuates itself into an ongoing debate about the dangers facing the US under the sinister rule of its current President and the dangerous forces it appears to have unleashed. They scarcely need elaboration here. Just open your newspaper on any day you happen to read this.

Created by David Simon and Ed Burns (pictured left), it’s the fourth collaboration for the pair after The Corner (2000), The Wire (2002- 2008) and Generation Kill (2008), all made for HBO. They met when Burns – not to be confused with the good-looking, scratchy-voiced actor-writer-director of the same name (The Brothers McMullen, Sidewalks of New York) – was working as a Baltimore detective and Simon’s beat was as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. 

Based on Philip Roth’s semi-autobiographical 2004 novel of the same name (1)The Plot Against America clearly belongs to that very loose grouping of fictions which offer alternative histories to the ones we might all be familiar with. Alt-histories, if you will. What-ifs. It’s a genre of sorts, one that could, if we’re going to be strict about it, include everything from Michael Curtiz’s period saga, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex(1938), to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019). 

Sometimes, it simply changes or rearranges real-world history and goes its own way. Sometimes, it takes things a bit further, introducing a science-fiction aspect, one in which the rules that govern our day-to-day realities are broken. As in The Final Countdown (1980), in which an aircraft carrier in the film’s present tense is transported back through time to shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Or in 11.22.63 (2016), an eight-part TV series based on the 2011 Stephen King novel in which a Maine English teacher travels through a portal into the past and ends up in 1958, with Elvis still rockin’ up a storm and JFK yet to make his way into the White House. Can he change history and help Kennedy to escape assassination? Should he?

Or in the TV series, The Man in the High Castle (2015 – 2019), which is set after the Allies lose World War 2 and the US is occupied by Germany on the East Coast and Japan on the West, with the Mountain States as a neutral buffer zone. What would everyday life be like in this America? What would the architecture look like? What would we think of those Americans who accepted the terms of the invaders’ rules? Who would make up the Resistance? Its four engrossing seasons are currently available for streaming through Amazon. The first was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, the rest of the series builds further on its premise. 

Inasmuch as it proposes an alternative World War 2 scenario and examines the mark that it leaves on the US, The Plot Against America is probably closest in spirit toThe Man in the High Castle. Its starting-point is a simple tweak of historical fact: with Hitler’s armies on the march in Europe, FDR loses the 1940 election to national hero Lindbergh (Ben Cole (right), plus Lindbergh himself in some documentary footage), whose isolationist agenda opposes US entry into the war. How, it asks, would such an event affect the state of the nation? (Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, doesn’t happen.)

The ramifications are felt throughout the country, the series focussing on their impact on the extended Levin family based in inner suburban Newark, New Jersey. 

Written by Burns and Simon, with Reena Rexrode collaborating on episode four, it’s directed by Minkie Spiro (the first three episodes) and veteran Thomas Schlamme (the last three). And they’ve made a significant change to the way the story is told: whereas the novel is narrated by young Philip and pivots on his child’s-eye view of the complexities of the world into which he’s been born, the series widens the perspective to include events beyond his direct experience. 

While there are recurring shots of the wide-eyed little boy (played by Azhy Robertson, above, who also starred in Marriage Story and featured in a couple of episodes of The Americans), it looks beyond his increasing bewilderment at the turbulence of the times and measures its impact on his parents, Herman and Bess (Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan), his brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), his aunt, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), and his cousin, Alvin (Irish actor Anthony Boyle). At least one member of the extended Levin family is present in every scene, and it’s through the spectrum of their contrasting and often conflicting reactions to unfolding events that the series shapes a debate about how best one should respond to the threats being posed to their existence.

The WW2 battlefront might be thousands of miles away, but its tremors reverberate throughout the Levin household. Most notably in the way that, in the newly elected President’s refusal to speak out against the Nazi outrage in Europe, he is empowering the anti-Semitism and the racism that has been simmering beneath the country’s surface since the beginning of its European colonisation. 

In one of his many tirades against the forces of darkness that have been waiting for their moment, Herman says that they’ve been “like dry leaves waiting on a spark”. And, by implicitly giving them the all-clear, Lindbergh has set them ablaze. As Herman’s brother (David Krumholtz) puts it, “These assholes, they’ve always been here. Now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks."

Morgan Spector (Herman Levin)
Herman is a proudly Jewish second-generation American everyman and a respected agent for the Metropolitan Life insurance company. For him, the plot against America is one that  that has been simmering within, that has remained hidden but is about to explode into his everyday world. And he’s seen it coming. 

At first, he’s reluctant to think that Lindbergh – whom he describes sarcastically to Bess as “the big man with the little plane” – could possibly translate his popularity as a national hero into success at the electoral polls. But at the same time he’s also been fearful about what lies ahead. And when his dream of America turns into a nightmare – “They said it can’t happen here. It is happening here” – he looks to another populist figure, Jewish radio demagogue and tabloid newspaper columnist Walter Winchell (Billy Carter), for hope. The outspoken Herman is a man of principle who believes that words matter. And he’s committed to the notion that, if he decides to take a stand, his family should line up behind him. Bess has seen the writing on the wall and proposes that they pack up and leave for Canada, which has joined the fight against Hitler in Europe and where the family will be safe. Hers is a voice of good reason and her concern is an equally principled one: their survival. But Herman argues that the enemy won’t be defeated if they, and others like them, run away.

Winona Ryder (Evelyn)
Bess’s sister, Evelyn, is a regular visitor to the Levin’s home and very much a part of their life, but her chief worry is that she’s going to be left on the shelf. So when she catches the eye of the socially prominent widower Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a supporter of Lindbergh’s isolationist stance, the starstruck young woman is overwhelmed by his social stature and blinded by his pompous oratory. Beautifully played by Turturro with a Southern twang, Bengelsdorf is probably best described as a well-meaning dupe. She falls for him just as he falls for the glitter bestowed on him by the White House. Both are blinded by the light (a recurring motif in the series).

Philip is a good kid, naïve but loyal, ready to do the decent thing by the troubled boy next door (Jacob Laval) even though his immediate instinct is to flee his fawning attentions. His dawning realisation about how his childhood is being torn away from him mirrors the way in which reality hits home for the rest of his family.

Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis

His older brother, Sandy (pictured above with him), brings order to his world through his art, and his meticulously crafted pencil sketches speak of a nascent talent in the process of being born. He secretly hero-worships Lindbergh, rushing to the window whenever he hears a plane flying overhead. In his own way, he embodies the gullibility of a populous at large, too easily taken in by a duplicitous agenda that’s been packaged inside a benign demeanour. He naively embraces the opportunity offered to him, thanks to Evelyn’s influence, by the “Just Folks” program. Designed by the new administration’s Office of American Absorption to help assimilate Jewish youth into the American mainstream, its cover is its claim that, through the program, “city youths are being introduced to the values of the heartland”.

Herman’s orphaned nephew, Alvin (above with Sandy), is the family rebel without a cause, the restless young man whose heart is in the right place but who, to his uncle’s chagrin, seems to be forever getting mixed up with the wrong people and getting himself into trouble. Everybody else in the family loves having him around, but Herman doesn’t trust him. Even when Alvin finds a cause and heads off to Canada to help fight the Nazis.

There’s nothing simple about the way in which the Levin family tackles the issues confronting them. They’d be ordinary people in an extraordinary situation were it not for the way in which that situation reflects what’s happening today in the US. Dinner table gatherings lie at the heart of their unity – there’s one in every episode – and the disruptions to their domestic harmony and the divisions that separate them run parallel to the disturbances and the social breakdown happening all around.

They’re all struggling to make sense of their place in the scheme of things, their personal histories and the relationships they form along the way affecting how they deal with the life-changing choices facing them. What emerges from their struggle inThe Plot Against America is a powerful family portrait framed by the blaze that Lindbergh’s election has set alight. 

There is both a knowing embrace and a savage irony in the series’ use of Frank Sinatra singing the famously patriotic ballad, “The House I Live In (What Is America To Me?)”, on the soundtrack in the closing sequence of the final episode. On the one hand, it presents the images of ballot papers being burned by shadowy figures as a response to the song title’s question: “That’s America to me”. A dream going up in flames. On the other, the song lends a potent emotional weight to the possibility of renewal as, just before the closing credits roll, hands are joined and life goes on as the Levins gather around the radio, hoping for good news… And Sinatra’s song gets the final word, an uplifting final line about what it is that makes America great: a lot of things “…But especially the people/That’s America to me.”

Asked, shortly before his death, about the applicability of his original 2004 what-if scenario to the circumstances of contemporary America, Roth was circumspect, but left no doubt about his view of the current president. “I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush,” he wrote. “But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character and intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” (2)

Citing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a key reference for him – when a leader overplays his hand, what is the appropriate response? – Simon is a little more forthcoming about the direct pertinence of Roth’s novel to the modern day. Asked by Vulture’s Kathryn Van Arendonk about how he sees his adaptation of The Plot Against America in relation to “the contemporary moment”, he replied, “The dial turns a very bright orange.” (3)

Philip Roth

But he also points to its wider implications and to his team’s rationale for shunning Roth’s order-is-restored ending. “Looking at our own fundamental problems with our electoral process right now, the lack of faith any of us can have that the popular will is going to be conveyed through the American voting structure, we said, ‘We’re coming on an election year. We need to comment. We need to speak very bluntly to what this election means.’ So we ended without feeling the need to say, ‘…and then America was restored.’ The only reason to spend the money to film [this show] is that this generation is facing a fundamental threat to the norms of our republic and self-governance.” Elsewhere, he puts it more concisely: “It’s a piece of work about how fragile democracy is. The fight is never over. But if you stop fighting, you lose it.” (4)

1.    Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 
The family’s surname is Roth in the novel. Roth’s parents in real life were named Herman and Bess  and his brother was Sanford (who was known as “Sandy”). Herman was a district manager for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The TV adaptation changes the family surname to Levin, with David Simon at the same time incorporating his own autobiographical elements. “I didn’t have to research the tone,” he told Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk (April 20, 2020). “Not only does Philip Roth lay it out beautifully in his work, but I could draw on a reservoir of memory of my parents and grandparents.”
 2.  Judith Thurman, “Philip Roth E-Mails On Trump”, The New Yorker, January 30, 2017
 3.  Kathryn VanArendonk, “David Simon on the End of The Plot Against America (and Democracy)”, Vulture, April 20, 2020
4.   “The Plot Against America: David Simon and cast with Peter Sagal” (at the 92Y in New York, March 2020) Watch it on YouTube if you click here

 The trailer for The Plot Against America can be found if you click through on 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.