The Plot Against America. HBO. Monday, March 16, 9 p.m.
In 2004, when Philip Roth published The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and steers America into fascism, the chattering-class critics were all agog about this chilling allegory about the George W. Bush presidency. (Like, Bush and Lindbergh were both pilots and everything.) Roth rather convincingly denied that Bush was the inspiration for his novel; Bush did not propose replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," and the book returned to being a wintry what-if meditation on anti-Semitism.
Sixteen years later, David Simon has turned the novel into an HBO miniseries, and this time the arts intelligentsia has discovered that the real culprit is not Bush but Donald Trump. And I don't think Simon will be issuing any denials.
Consider the familiar ring of these words from a Jewish character who thinks the president is stirring up anti-Semitism: "These assholes, they've always been here. Now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks." Or this line: "This is how it starts: everyone thinking they can work with the guy. Like Hitler: Everyone believes he doesn't mean what he says." Or the accusation that his critics are being bought off by a strong economy: "Not so long ago, you couldn't bear the man, either. But now what? Stock market is up, profits are up, business is moving….What he stands for is forgotten. What else matters to you, a businessman, if the money is right?"
It's been a while since I read the novel, and it's possible that some of this dialogue is the work of Roth and not Simon. Either way, watching The Plot Against America often feels like being locked in a closet with a fanatical #NeverTrumper: It'll give you a headache even if you agree with him.
Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns have certainly woven political polemics into their work before, notably on the futility of the war on drugs in The Wire and the corruption engendered by attempts to outlaw the sex trade in The Deuce, and done so intelligently and entertainingly. But even without the Trump Temptation, the novel The Plot Against America poses some special challenges.
Alternative history is, by definition, ahistorical. But generally it changes one key factual point, then lets the archival billiard balls bump each other around. Roth's novel is more like a complete rewrite of the record. Lindbergh's exploits as a pioneering aviator made him wildly famous in a way that's nearly impossible to understand in today's your-15-minutes-are-up world, but he never tried to make any political hay out of it; he showed no interest in the presidency. And if he had, there's not the faintest evidence he would have been successful—Roosevelt's popularity was so immense that he was able to toss out 150 years of no-third-term tradition with scarcely a peep of protest.
So, fine, there's your one historical anomaly to start the ball rolling. But the novel continues to edit history whenever it's convenient to the plot. Lindbergh was, no doubt, anti-Semitic, but if he was a Nazi, he made Sergeant Schultz look downright competent. In the run-up to World War II, when the United States had no intelligence service, he used ceremonial visits to Germany to spy on the Luftwaffe and was the source for practically everything the United States knew about the Nazis' powerful new air force.
If Roth overhypes his villains, he whitewashes his heroes. The Jewish characters through whose eyes the story is told regard Roosevelt as the Moses of his day, a magnificent statesman and the sword and shield of American Jews. Actually, FDR spent a good bit of his spare time plotting schemes to keep Jews out of a postwar America. He stood by contentedly as his notoriously anti-Semitic State Department infamously turned away the German cruise ship St. Louis and its cargo of Jewish refugees in 1939, sending hundreds of them back to die at the hands of the Nazis. Likewise, Canada—treated as a cuddly asylum state for Lindbergh's Jewish victims in The Plot—actually spent most of the 1930s rejecting Jewish refugees, as many as 800,000 of them.
Roth's fantasies about who was doing what to whom during the prelude to the war are mostly transferred intact to the series, undermining both its dramatic and its political credibility to the extent that it probably ought to be retitled The Way We Weren't. But if you ignore the show's macropolitical level and focus instead on its characters and their little chunk of the world, the superlative storytelling skills of Simon and Burns assert themselves.
Like the novel, their tale is told through a fictionalized version of Roth's own family. Dad Herman (Morgan Spector, Homeland) is an up-and-coming insurance salesman and the kind of guy who bellows as he listens to Walter Winchell's nightly radio newscast. Mom Elizabeth (Zoe Kaza, The Deuce) is quieter, but as a childhood refugee from Russia, has more close-up experience with anti-Semitism than her husband does. Teenage artist Sandy (newcomer Caleb Malis), is fascinated by Lindbergh's heroic dimensions, much to his father's disgust. And young Philip's (Azhy Robertson, The Americans) scant political comprehension only exacerbates his growing terror of a world seemingly spinning off its axis.
The two most engaging characters of all come from outside the nuclear family: bully-boy gangbanger Alvin (Anthony Boyle, Ordeal By Innocence), Herman's orphaned nephew, whose innate rage at the world causes him to join the Canadian army to shoot Nazis, only to discover that they shoot back, and Elizabeth's apolitical and old-maidish sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder), whose pursuit of a husband leads her into a liaison with a collaborationist Southern rabbi. Boyle and Rider's desperation at coping with a world from which they seem permanently locked out is so real it stings. More than the others, they ponder what it means to be Jewish. Is their New Jersey home really located in a Jewish neighborhood? Or is it—and Alvin and some of his young friends suspect—a ghetto?
And then there's Alvin's conversation with a flirty young British woman who's never met a Jew before and isn't sure what the big deal is.
"You don't seem so different," she says. "You believe in more or less the same stuff as anybody else, God and all that."
"I don't believe in God," he corrects her.
"Then why are you Jewish?" she asks in surprise.
His reply is The Plot Against America's bottom line, which despite all the show's political missteps, sounds what it must really have felt like to be Jewish in the 1940s: "I'm a Jew because I was born a Jew, and this whole fuckin' world wishes I wasn't."