So here we come to roost: Life upended and anxieties unleashed.
Sports events, social gatherings, performance events, travel and other outings are cancelled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s a frightening vista to contemplate. What could be more disturbing than life upended in this way? Well, contemplating a history upended is also extra-chilling.
The Plot Against America (Starts Monday HBO/Crave 9 p.m.) is a six-part series based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel. In the alternate history the novel presented, Charles Lindbergh is elected U.S. president in 1940 and the folk-hero pilot is firmly against the United States entering the Second World War. He is also elected on a platform that is clearly anti-Semitic. What unfolds is meant to be a cautionary tale about electing people who are unskilled in politics but gifted with populist instincts. The series certainly is that – cautionary to the point of being unnervingly sinister.
When Roth wrote the novel, George W. Bush was president and the post-9/11 period had created and normalized anti-Muslim sentiment. What Roth wrote was an allegory but also a fantasy and he had the fictional Lindbergh presidency seen through the eyes of an ordinary, middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. The mini-series sticks to the core material, but, adapted by David Simon (who created The Wire) and Ed Burns, the storyline becomes prescient. The sheer strangeness of the story, as it blossoms into an incisive judgment on the Trump era, is as threatening and ominous as anything happening on your TV screen today.
In June of 1940, when the first episode takes place, the Levin family is doing well. Dad, insurance salesman Herman (Morgan Spector) and wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), are looking to move up in the world. Maybe a bigger house for their family, now that Herman got a promotion. Eldest son Sandy (Caleb Malis), an aspiring artist who already worships Lindbergh, is super-optimistic about everything. Younger son Philip (Azhy Robertson) is shy and primarily enjoys his stamp collection. There are happy family dinners with aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle).
Then one day Philip blurts out the fatal question, “What just happened?” This is after the family is looking at a potential new home and encounter a group of locals who basically tell them they don’t want Jews living in the area. In a rapid-fire series of seemingly small events, Charles Lindbergh emerges as the political star of the moment. He’s popular and people find his opinions refreshing. He thinks “the British people” and “the Jewish people” are trying to drag the United States into a war against Germany that nobody wants and is unwarranted.
Herman is incensed: “This is how it starts, when everyone’s thinking they can work with the guy. Like Hitler. Everyone believes he doesn’t mean what he says.” Around him, even inside his own family, Herman knows that Lindbergh has fans and followers who are along for the wild, uncertain ride.
The Plot Against America is less a fantasy than it is a nightmare from which the viewer awakes and then goes scrambling for reassurance that the nightmare isn’t real. (It is vastly different in tone from The Man in the High Castle, which takes a more action-drama approach to the idea of a different ending to the Second World War.) It is gorgeously made without having overt sepia-toned-nostalgia visual impact. Remarkably, it doesn’t feel like a blunt lesson in social or political responsibility. The threads of the story are woven together with an organic feel. The mini-series, like the novel, is a “what-if” story and yet it never seems fantastical, even when president Lindbergh is welcoming Nazi leaders into the White House.
Gripping and vivid, it’s about anxieties more insidious than even what a pandemic can induce.
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