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The Plot Against America
— a spine-chilling miniseries based on Philip Roth's memorable 2004 novel . . .
By Elyse Sommer
Roth's imagination didn't stretch to believing that the Roths or other American Jews could actually be subjected to the fate of those in Hitler's Europe. Charles Lindbergh was indeed an iconic hero despite his questionable visits to Hitler's Germany, and many Americans shared his isolationist views. What's more, Roosevelt was indeed worried about a challenge by the charismatic aviator. In real rather than alternate history, Lindbergh never ran for office. Roosevelt did get his third term, and America entered the war.
That said, Roth's fictionalized depiction of the 1940 election that did result in a Lindbergh administration was so vivid that I could almost see his many powerful scenes as if I were watching a movie.
Now this nightmarish memoir has actually actually leaped off the pages of Roth's book and become a 6-part miniseries. Unforgettably brilliant and original as the book was, the series currently on HBO is equally brilliant and original.
To their great credit, David Simon and Ed Burns have been true to the book without sacrificing their own vision for visually and thematically potent filmed story-telling. Critical to that vision was making it relevant to the time of the series' rather than the book's birth.
When The Plot Against America was published readers saw chilling parallels to another scary scenario invented by Sinclair Lewis for his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here. While the 2016 election boosted sales of both books, it took this adaptation of Plot. . . for one of today's ever popular streamed entertainment platforms to not only point the finger at the novel's relevancy but also to make changes in the interest of the series format and the novel's increased timeliness.
The major structural change was to expand the sole viewpoint of young Philip (Azhy Robertson) to include his whole family — Mom and Dad Bess and Herman ( Zoe Kazan and Morgan Spector), older brother Sandy (Caleb Malis), and Herman's orphaned nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle). This achieves a different kind of intimacy from that solo viewpoint, but it works beautifully to make the family's home the pivotal epicenter of an escalating national catastrophe. And, while the Levins are a close-knit, loving family, like all families they have their differences. In this case, each see a different way to respond to the horror descending even on places like Newark.
To ratchet up the effect of the Lindbergh election on the Levns there's Bess's unmmarried sister Evelyn. Her job and personal relationship with Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) has ended years of go-nowhere relationships and low self-esteem. The rabbi, a German Jew with Southern roots dating back to the Civil War, believes that Lindbergh is not an anti-Semite and that his government will actually be great for the Jews.
Naturally, his support has won Bergelsdorf a powerful post with Lindbergh. To Bess and Herman's dismay, Evelyn is fully on board, and Sandy, like his aunt, sees only the upside to Lindbergh's presidency. To the artistic teen a program to spend a summer with a farm family in the American heartland is a chance to draw all kinds of animals. His parents see it only like Hitler's turning children against their parents and as a first step to catergorizing their more insular urban life as something not fully American.
Philip, who's still very much part of the story, just wants thngs to stay the same. But of course that's not in the cards. The still fun-filled gatherings around the radio that have Bess entertain the boys with her Gracie Allen routine become more fraught with tension.
Simon and Burns haven't changed Roth's plot. Instead they've effectively added their own minor and a few major touches. And so the family's disastrous trip to the nation's capital is more powerfully disillusioning than ever; and Bess's long-distance mothering of the little boy who used to live next door but is now frightened and alone in suddenly hate-inflamed Kentrucky is even more moving here.
The largest Simon-Burns fingerprint on Roth's chracters is on Alvin. But it too is a plus since it adds to the dramatic impact of that final episode. It also exemplifies the effectiveness of the expanded viewpoints. Each character now not responds differently to the national crisis, but with the kind of little-guy heroism that's made America what it is.
Of course the terrific performances of the principal characters helps. Zoe Kazan and Morgan Spector are better than outstanding. Anthony Boyle makes the most of the added original sequences written for him by Simon and Burns. Bravos too for Winona Ryder and John Turturro for their portayals of the needy Evelyn Finkel and the self-deluded Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Their displayiing genuine affection for each other is one of the script's smart touches.
Not to be overlooked are the designers for the spot-on authenticity of the interior and exterior scenes. Ditto for the costumes and hairdos.
Roth, who tended to be against filmed adaptations of his work, didn't live to see this one (he died in 2018). But he did still have a meeting with Simon and his only request was to change the family's name but left it up to Simon to grapple with the ending. I think he would have appreciated how Simon handled it.
A final note: Peter Segal has created a podcast for each episode in which he discusses some of the themes and details about its development with David Simon. I started out watching just the last one but found it so interesting and well paced that I ended up watching all six. Make time to catch at least a couple yourself.
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The Plot Against Americs
Miniseries created by David Simon and Ed Burns.
Directed by Thomas Schlamme and Minkie Spiro (3 episodes each)
Principal Characters: Zoe Kazan as Bess Levin, Morgan Spector as Herman Levin, Azhy Robertson as Philip Levin (the novel's sole narrator), Caleb Malis as "Sandy Levin, Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel, Anthony Boyle as Alvin Levin; John Turtorro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf/
Some others in the large cast: David Krumholtz as Monty Levin, Herman's older brother, a successful fruit merchant; Michael Kostroff as Shepsie Tirchwell, Herman's friend, who manages a newsreel theater; Jacob Laval as Philip's friend and neighbor Seldon Wishnow; Ben Cole as Charles Lindbergh; Kristen Sieh a Selma Wishnow;Steven Maier as Shushy Margulis; Billy Carter as Walter Winchell; Caroline Kaplan as Anne Morrow Lindbergh; Michael Cerveris as Mr. Taylor.
Production Design by Richard Hoover
Costumes by Jeriana San Juan
Cinematography Martin Ahlgren Running time each episode: 60 minutes
Released for streaming at HBO March 16, 2020