The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns’s six-part miniseries for HBO, is released on Sky this week. It’s a work of alternative history that asks the question: What if Charles Lindbergh – transatlantic aviator, public idol and notorious antisemite – had run for and won the US presidency in 1940 on a ticket of hard-line isolationism? How would the prejudice simmering in America react to the heat being turned up under it by a reckless populist leader? Does any of this sound familiar?
The series is based on Philip Roth’s 2002 novel, a searing look at fear and self-loathing through the eyes of a Jewish family, the Roths, in Newark. Renamed the Levins, the family is otherwise the same: concerned parents, wide-eyed younger son Philip and wannabe all-American farm boy Sandy, Lindy sympathiser Aunt Evelyn, and tearaway nephew Alvin, a ne’er-do-well with a heart of steel. It’s a good recipe: we see in miniature all the tensions and discord of a state eating itself from the inside out. Unfortunately, Simon and Burns (whose impeccable record as a writing duo includes The Wire) appear unwilling to explore this tension in any way except through characters directly relating it to each other.
The novel’s rich relevance to the 21st century is treated with an extra-light hand. This is rather refreshing, although I could do without the sepia cinematography that reminds us insistently that we are in the Past with a capital P. The temptation to hammer home every possible parallel to the present must have been strong, but there’s nary a Trump motif in sight. Lindbergh, played with few words by a patrician Ben Cole, is about as far as you can get from the dumpy squint of the current president. What remains when direct allusion is shaded out is the white-hot emotional core of all situations of oppression and hatred. Familiarity is communicated through feeling rather than word or image.
The cast, too, adds some much-needed spark. Zoe Kazan balances motherly quietude and deep unease well, and Anthony Boyle is captivating as the fiery Alvin (although, again, a shoehorned-in side plot about radar – complete with dire “Bridish accints” – almost makes us tire of him too). Winona Ryder, as Kazan’s misguided sister, and John Turturro as the rabbi in the pay of the government, provide an elegant foil to the put-upon Levins. They are the conformist turncoats desperate to ingratiate themselves with the power that crushes their peers, destined always to be disappointed by their amour.
But the script barely scratches the surface of Roth’s teeming anthill of ideas and images. Scene after scene of exposition hurriedly checks off the novel’s events, while whole extra plots are added in to little purpose. Characters are referred to exclusively as “your sister”, “my brother”, “your father”, as if we might have forgotten who they are in the last five minutes. It takes two hour-long episodes for Lindy to even make it to the White House. After yet another lengthy silence between pontificating speeches, the urge to switch it off grows more and more clamorous.
But then, half an hour before the end, a miracle happens. The pace finally picks up. Simon and Burns take the mess of historico-political threads that have accumulated throughout the show and turn it over to reveal a glowingly complete tapestry. Roth’s true concern, the family whose existence seems threatened from outside and in, is brought under a dazzling light. The Plot Against America climaxes with a fight: the simplest expression of the angst and horror that have been raked this way and that for the last five and a half hours. Its simultaneous panic and release give way to an ending that winds us right back up again. Clean American sap is fouled by the stink of voter suppression; hope tussles with despair. That tussle didn’t end in 1942, and, we are assured, it’s not over yet.
The Plot Against America is released on Sky on 14th July 2020.
Watch the trailer for The Plot Against America here: