Alt-history, like regular history, always serves as a lesson for the present. Even when the “alt” is doing more work than the “history” (see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), the fictionalized what-ifs of the world deserve their own place in historiography, simply because they reflect what events and fears people connected to throughout time—and why. In The Plot Against America, the miniseries adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel from David Simon and Ed Burns, these fears come to life when Franklin D. Roosevelt loses his 1940 reelection to Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), whose real-life isolationist activities with the America First Committee, antisemitism, and public fame draw startling contemporary comparisons. It’s a deft period piece, a quick-paced drama, and a provoking parallel to the current U.S. administration with all its demagoguery and bluster.
But it’s not Lindbergh’s story, just like it’s not Donald Trump’s. It’s the story of how the Newark couple Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bess Levin (Zoe Kazan) and their household—including their kids, Phillip (Azhy Robertson), and Sandy (Caleb Malis)—are affected by a nation that only needed a nudge to turn against them. That’s where The Plot Against America draws its big hard-realist line in the sand between itself and other Nazi-American fiction like The Man in the High Castle, with which it shares imagery. This isn’t fantastic. This isn’t science-fiction. There, but for the grace of Roosevelt, go we.
That makes it a tough watch. Kings of the “fuck you right up” opening credits, Simon and Burns start punching in guts from the second The Plot Against America opens with a devestating montage of Depression, war, Nazism, politics, and aviating derring-do—all scored to Irving Kahal’s New Deal anthem “The Road is Open Again.” These complex collages continue on into the episodes themselves, with weighty ideas barraging like air strikes under the command of its scribes, editors, and helmers. The first three episodes of the six-part miniseries are directed by Minkie Spiro, with Thomas Schlamme closing out the back half. Both throw so much information at us—through marquees, neighborly conversation, and inescapable radio broadcasts—that America’s situation feels like sand, disintegrating before our eyes even realize we’re looking at a castle.
The branching paths—some of least resistance, some of profitable appeasement, some of anxious and devastating defiance—to this right turn in American culture (not as sharp as some may like to believe) develop over the months and years tracked by the six episodes. Most involve the core family, but the most moving are those tracking the kids’ cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), and aunt, Evelyn (Winona Ryder).
Boyle, one or two screen roles away from being a massive star, is a furious backlash that’s all brooding Brando—he’s tough, sweet, and steadfast in a likeable role as the gold-hearted kid running with a rough crowd. Ryder’s wide-eyed, swept-up, broken-glass take on a woman seduced (literally and metaphorically) by the Lindbergh-enabling Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) is nuanced and heartbreaking. Most of the cast is fantastic as well, with Malis a young standout even though Spector and Kazan are doing some of their best work. The show’s narrative plants its foot, but its ensemble—and the community it crafts—is what helps it hit hard and follow through.
The co-mingling of documented fact, hard fiction, and the nebulous shoulda, woulda, couldas of alt-history that will likely send you Googling after the episodes air (it did for me). The pigheaded optimism and pessimism rampant among this tragic, stubborn political hodgepodge is composed of some unbelievable characters and others all too real. Together, arcs can sometimes seem conspicuously constructed; other times they’re so out-of-control that it’s hard to believe it holds together.
This uneven intensity is sometimes interrupted by on-the-nose dialogue (“That’s how this happens. Everyone is afraid.”) and spurts of boyhood experience for Phillip, which likely made the book feel more intimate but here usually only distract from a show that’s already arrestingly close to its characters. It doesn’t help that Robertson’s one-note naiveté, screen-encompassing in wide-angle shots, is even weaker than Turturro’s turncoat southern gentleman. However, the ride never stops and, if you’re game for some righteous indignation of your own (just in time for election season), you’ll enjoy its rattling.
The Plot Against America drives its Packard 180 right up my alley. It shares a lot of what I appreciated about Simon’s other recent HBO series The Deuce: beautiful urban and suburban cinematography that lends itself to showing different communities and how they overlap, tight conversations realistically scripted, and shifting public opinion at a pivotal time in America. And of course, uncomfortable as it is, it’s all immaculately crafted. The Plot Against America is another crash course in history, sociology, and political science from The Wire team that has all the power of a waking nightmare.
The Plot Against America premieres Monday, March 16th on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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