“I stick my neck out for nobody. The problems of this world are not in my department,” Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine famously says – having made a mantra and a reputation out of the statement – in the World War II classic, “Casablanca.” The patriarchal figure at the center of David Simon and Ed Burns’ scorching adaptation of Philip Roth’s alternate history novel, “The Plot Against America,” a man of principle named Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), has the exact opposite problem, sometimes sticking his neck out for his ethnic community even when the anti-Semitism threatens the safety of his family.
In one of the first images of HBO’s commanding new miniseries, kids play running war games in the street, bouncing rubber balls against national alignments drawn with chalk on the blacktop, instead of making horoscopes, or playing four square. Like the aforementioned Moroccan set classic, ‘Plot’ paints period New Jersey as a city caught in a crossroads of their own political alignment, primarily following the Levin family in a timeline where American aviator, Charles Lindebergh is elected as the 33rd President of the United States, running on an isolationist anti-war policy. In other words, our country never enters the second world war, the executive department instead shaking the hand of Hitler. Simon and Burns’ intentions are by no means subtle, but the show actually is understated despite the subject matter and modern day allusions — its execution far more muted, quietly escalating and sobering than it is sensationalist. What Simon and Burns expertly capture is the slow faint creep of fascism and the sinister way it suddenly seems to engulf our lives.
“This is not between Lindebergh and FDR,” Roosevelt’s opponent maintains, “It is between Lindebergh and War,” using fear to rally support in the upcoming elections (sound familiar?) “They keep putting it on the radio no matter how many times he says it,” Herman seethes, sitting next to his only means of receiving political information at home, for nights on end, listening to the nonsense, rallying behind the one broadcaster willing to speak out. His friend (Michael Kostroff) also runs the projection booth at a local theater — the marquee of which quietly clues the viewers in on the escalating state of things throughout the series — so Herman also sees the media nonsense being propagated, firsthand. Things get more complicated for his family when his sister-in-law, Evelyn Finkel (Winona Ryder) becomes romantically involved with one of Lindbergh’s supporters, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), whom the aviator’s campaign has recruited in order to dispel the Jewish voting populace’s belief that the American icon has anti-Semitic beliefs.
After Lindebergh is elected, winning for almost the exact same reasons we elected our resident Commander-in-Idiocy, Bengelsdorf spearheads a new program form the Office of American Absorption, portentously titled “Just Folks,” beginning with a voluntary summer relocation program, which will give young Jewish kids the opportunity to experience “real” American life in the heartland of our nation. Evelyn suggests one of Herman and her sister, Bessy’s (Zoe Kazan, tremendous, but under-utilized for the first half of the series) artistic older son, Sandy (Caleb Malis) who, naively, already looks up to Lindebergh. But the Levin’s immediately see through the government’s scheme, an attempt to create a schism in certain domestic units, driving a wedge within tightly knit families. When the second phase of the program is introduced, called the Homestead Act, where the voluntary element of relocation seems more vague, the fascist writings on the wall grow all the more clearer.
There are a few additional key plotlines, the most ambitious revolving around Herman’s nephew Alvin (an excellent Anthony Boyle) who joins the Canadian army when enlisting in his own country’s armed forces ceases to be an option. Another follows the Levin’s youngest boy, Phillip (Azhy Robertson, whose innocently watering eyes will break your heart) and two of his friendships, both of which end in tragedy. Like many series these days, ‘Plot’ plants the seeds of its narrative throughout the early episodes, before the climax completely combusts, the finale of the series running well over an hour long — it could almost sustain itself as a feature, cinematically — and stretches of it are frighteningly compelling. One sequence, a road trip to the state of Kentucky at the height of KKK activity, will glue you to your seat and you’ll be afraid to blink.
How the series depicts a family in caught in a crisis of social change, exceptionally developing each of its character’s motivations as individuals human beings, will strike a nerve with just about any family of sane people at this key juncture in our history. Kazan is arguably the key to holding the domestic drama together emotionally, calmly mediating all the opinionated shouting matches that, more and more regularly, grow into heated outburst under her roof. One scene towards the end of the series, which finds her trying to keep herself composed while helping someone through a traumatic episode over the phone, is soul wrenching. Spector is the closest thing the show has to a lead, and he’s very, very good, but his character is perhaps a bit too consistently loud mouthed about his ideology, frequently putting other’s in harm’s way, perpetuating some uber tense conflicts that grow appropriately frustrating for the viewer.
Being a David Simon show, the invisible arm of systemic reach is further felt the deeper this alternate history delves — although, same as the source material, the miniseries only covers a couple years of this alternative timeline, and the pitfalls and unrest of Lindebergh’s America does wrap itself up a tad too quickly on an emotional level, before the show adds a pair of fascinating, tonally contrasted epilogues. Much like something like “Watchmen” (the graphic novel, not the recent, exceptional, HBO program) the story here is left entirely in America’s hands. The series wisely acknowledging that our liberty-tinted promised land reaps what it sows, and voting out of fear, or not voting at all, leads to irreparable consequences, reconciled only by extreme actions often inspired by both change and delusion.
Like “Casablanca,” “The Plot Against America,” starts off cynical and ends on a curiously romanticized final shot, not one meant to blindly uplift, but to make one truly ponder the possibilities of reconciliation and the consequences of living in a failed state of democracy; the viewer being directly shown why our nation’s celebratory nature is bound to eventually be the start of another snowball effect, but acknowledging that all we can really do until the time comes to fight is be there for each other. “My dear Rick, when will you realize that in the world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” Sydney Greenstreet’s character candidly expresses to Rick in “Casablanca.” When hate that has long lay dormant is given as excuse to unleash itself, it’s even more important to remember to be there for one another in troubles times. Spite is never a good reason to act on something, but complacency can be an even worse option in times of hate. [A-]
“The Plot Against America” premieres on March 16th at 9PM on HBO.