NEW YORK — Timing is everything. What if, in the late 1930s, beloved international aviator Charles Lindbergh — a Nazi-sympathizer and sincere Jew-hater — had listened to some of his more radically isolationist statesmen friends to become the Republican challenger to Roosevelt in 1940?
What if he won, on an “America First” platform suggesting, “No, you aren’t just voting for me, you are voting for a concept, to Keep America at Peace?” What if a Lindbergh presidency prevented Pearl Harbor, kept America out of the war, let Nazism stomp through Europe and inspired rampant anti-Semitism in the United States?
Timing is everything. What if Phillip Roth, arguably the greatest Jewish-American novelist of our time, hadn’t read Arthur Schlesinger’s memoirs just as he’d finished two trilogy-completing books, learned about the Lindbergh political suggestion, and thought to wonder “what if?”
His novel about the Jewish-American Roth family of Newark living through a Lindbergh Administration, “The Plot Against America,” was released in late 2004. It was published a year-and-a-half after “shock and awe,” a few months after the photos of Abu Ghraib, and during the worst of the Fallujah insurgency. It came, some felt, with perfect timing.
“This is clearly about George W. Bush,” many said. I never quite agreed. Lindbergh (Roth’s Lindbergh, that is, but maybe the real one, too) had malicious aims, but he couched them in anti-war rhetoric. Bush (or, at least, his brain trust) were war mongers and imperialists. The book, though absolutely brilliant, was not the current events commentary some wished it to be. Its brilliance and specificity made it, I remember arguing, just a memoir from another timeline.
But timing is everything, and when David Simon (the Jewish-American producer and showrunner behind “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “The Wire,” “Treme,” “Show Me A Hero” and more) decided to adapt this for television, he knew Roth’s text could easily bend to mirror the current president’s antipathy toward minorities — and the Jew hatred of many of his followers. It just takes one stray “both sides” comment (subtle, half-heard during a radio broadcast) after KKK-instigated violence to make Simon’s aims known.
Roth himself agreed there were some similarities between Lindbergh and Donald Trump, though begrudgingly admitted that Lindbergh, the aviator, had some undeniable accomplishments. “Trump, by comparison,” he told the New York Times in his last interview, “is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”
It is fitting, then, that the six-part HBO adaption is not a one-to-one parallel. It is mature enough to reflect life, and be confusing. After all, war is bad, right? And if Lindbergh wants peace, who cares if he has a medal from the Germans? And if his “Just Folks” program, in which “city kids” (i.e. Jews) get to spend a summer on a Kentucky farm (i.e. absorbing the culture of “real Americans”), is it really so wrong to have new experiences?
These moments of ambiguity are what separate “The Plot Against America” from some of the more blunt and less challenging alt-history television shows such as “Hunters” or “The Man in the High Castle.”
Through the eyes and ears of young Philip we experience the slow-creeping dread of malevolent social change. At first, Philip’s father (a terrific Morgan Spector) doesn’t think anyone — any American — could ever take a joke candidate like Lindbergh seriously. Philip’s mother (Zoe Kazan, in a career-best role), who grew up in the Gentile city of Elizabeth, not the Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, is a little… jumpier.
At first she just wishes her husband (and her nephew, who eventually joins the Canadian military to fight in Europe) would just stop bringing the troubles of the world into her living room. At some point she realizes that becoming refugees (again: Canada) might be their salvation. Philip’s tragically unwed Aunt Evelyn (Winona Rider), who finally finds happiness when a celebrated rabbi (John Turturro) turns his eye her way, is our window into Washington affairs when they become official liaisons to the Jewish community in Lindbergh’s White House. We are never quite sure to what degree either of them is intentionally selling out their coreligionists or if they are just that stupid.
Timing is everything. I received my critics’ links to the full HBO miniseries on a day when the coronavirus was something scary, but still far away. I’d watch an episode, then look at my phone; the NBA season was called off. I’d watch an episode, look at my phone; Tom Hanks had the disease. An abstract threat was suddenly very present, and one that required me to change my life.
Maybe it was the worst day to binge watch such an elegantly rendered (Simon and co-creator Ed Burns sure got HBO to cough up the dough for period decor) and thoughtfully written show. Honestly, my panic-flooded brain probably didn’t catch everything.
Or maybe it was the best way to watch it. There was nothing far-fetched about seeing world horrors invade the warmth and protection of a simple New York City-area home. Lines like “It can’t happen here? It is happening here!” — spoken by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia outside Temple Emanu-El after anti-Lindbergh broadcaster Walter Winchell is murdered by anti-Semites — may have seemed like an easy shot when written, but land with devastating force now.
It’s too soon into our current crisis to know just who and how world leaders have failed us. We’ll have plenty of time indoors, I guess, to work that out in the time to come. But what interests me more than raging about bad policy, at least in art, is seeing how obstacles affect people. “The Plot Against America” will certainly intrigue history buffs (so much Burton K. Wheeler content!) but it reaches greatness on the merits of its drama. There are scenes of absolute heartbreak (I haven’t even gotten to the neighbor kid, Seldon Wishnow) and many outstanding moments of rich dialogue.
There have been eight previous feature film adaptations of Roth’s books. Six have been awful. One, 1969’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” was pretty good. One has been great, 2016’s “Indignation.” The most celebrated sequence in that movie, written and directed by James Schamus, is a drawn-out philosophical argument between Logan Lerman and Tracy Letts. I suspect that Simon and his team saw this and said, “Yes, we can do this, and do it multiple times, and do it better.” These moments are extraordinary.
I don’t know where your head is at right now, a week into a societal shutdown with no definitive end. Maybe the only thing you want to watch are re-runs of “The Jeffersons” or something equally comforting. But, weirdly, I found “The Plot Against America” somewhat reassuring.
No, what happened in real life wasn’t quite as bad as what’s shown here, at least not in the United States. And, as in the book, the ending feels a bit pat. (“The Plot Against America” scores a 95 out of 100 as a result.) But the world, and America, have faced terrible threats before. Who ever figured World War III would be against germs? I just hope we come out on top again.
The first episode of “The Plot Against America” aired on HBO on March 16, and new episodes of the six-part series will be released weekly through April 20.