Friday, May 8, 2020

Reviewing HBO’s The Plot Against America

First, I’ll come out and say that I liked HBO’s  The Plot Against America.  The six-part miniseries based on Philip J. Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel of the same name, follows the life of a working-class Jewish family, the Levins, in Newark, New Jersey in the early 1940s as they witness the rise of Charles A.  Lindbergh to the Presidency of the United States of America.

The real Charles Lindbergh speaking at an America First Rally
The character of Charles Lindbergh is a very complex one. In our history, he was one of the leaders of the isolationist America First movement which sought to keep America out of the Second World War. It is also true he also travelled to Nazi Germany in 1938 and met with high-ranking officials of the Reich. He also upon numerous occasions had expressed anti-Semitic remarks. Historians have since come to see Lindbergh as a well-intentioned but bigoted Nazi sympathizer.  In the alternate history world, Roth and the creators of the miniseries, have not far to go in getting their man.

The Levins in an uncomfortable moment.
Like most Americans the Levins (who are modelled loosely on the author Roth’s own family),  both husband Herman (Morgan Spector) and wife Evelyn (Winona Ryder) find themselves curiously attracted to the great aviator Lindberg, because as he says on one of his stump speeches when he flies the Spirit of St. Louis to Newark, “It isn’t a choice between Lindberg and Roosevelt; it’s a choice between Lindberg and war.” 

It’s a theme that resonates enough to bring Lindberg, played by Ben Cole, into the White House.  The changes they see, the petty slights and discrimination is incremental at first and but then it begins to build: it’s almost like the story of the frog in the pot of water that is slowly brought to boil, by the time the Levins realize the trouble they’re in, it’s almost too late. 

The President and the Rabbi
The series features many strong performances by a strong cast. But one of the standout performances of the series by John Turturro who plays Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who sells his soul to get in good with the new administration. He conceives of a plan to resettle Jewish families. Curiously, he is blind to see the monumentality of his betrayal until he finds ultimately himself betrayed. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who joins the Canadian Army in violation of neutrality laws, only to come home wounded to a country that has changed. Although the story is told from the point of view of the extended Levin family, we still get telling glimpses of the changed world around them, with newsreel footage of Lindbergh shaking hands with Hitler in a secret meeting in Iceland, signing a non-aggression pact, which is a twisted fun-house version of the Roosevelt -Churchill meeting and the signing of the Atlantic Charter.

Without giving away too much, the ending is left in doubt, which is a departure from the source novel. It’s not too much to say that the show’s producers intended the series to be a reflection of the current situation in the United States, which has seen a resurgence of isolationism,  anti-Semitism and with the rise of the so-called alt-right, fascism. Perhaps recent years have stripped away the thin veneer and have revealed what had been lying there all along, under the surface. In the alternate history of the series, it takes a man like Charles Lindbergh to bring out the worst in people; in our world, all it took was the election of Donald Trump.

Alternate history in its best form, raises an interrogative mirror to our world  and allows us to not only ask what if, but also, if this goes on. The Plot Against America holds such a mirror to our uncertain times and allows us to ask not only these questions, but more. 

Highly recommended viewing.

What’s next?
I apologize with lateness of this blog post. Like many people with onset of COVID-19, I am now working from home.  I found have found it difficult to manage and deal with the circumstances around us.

Next month, I’ll be back with another post. Until that time, please look after each other and yourselves.

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

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