“It can’t happen here? No, it is happening here!”
How many times have we said, “well that wouldn’t happen to me. That would never happen now.” It’s a comforting statement as you clothe yourself in your comfiest pajamas and sip your piping hot beverage. But what if it did? What if it’s happening right now, and we live in our bubble of naiveite to help us get through the day. That’s what author Philip Roth asks us in his 2004 book, The Plot Against America. Now adapted as a limited series for HBO, The Plot Against America sheds a light on some of the most horrific situations that our nation could possibly face.
Over a month ago, the trailer for The Plot Against America exploded before our very eyes, and I found myself lost in its plot. Set during the early 1940s, The Plot Against America tells a fictionalized story of a world in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 election. Though Lindbergh never ran for political office in real life, it’s a scary thought of wondering what would happen if a Nazi sympathizer, and anti-Semite, held the most powerful position in our nation. After all, Lindbergh was rumored to be a part of the American Bund, a Nazi sympathetic group.
The series is told through the eyes of the Levin family, a typical American-Jewish family living in New Jersey during the 1940s. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), the patriarch of the family, adamantly defends his rights against Lindbergh’s poisonous ideology. Herman stays firm in his belief that the United States is his home, and he will not be forced out. Herman is married to Bess (Zoe Kazan) a strong woman and doting mother who protects her family. Bess is the rock to her husband, and their two sons, Sandy and Philip. Roth based these characters in his story after his own family. Each character of the Levin family aptly named after his own family members. But the Levins’ biggest foe comes from the people who are closest to them.
Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) is a Rabbi who backs Lindbergh 110% by informing his congregation, and the Jewish people throughout the United States, that Lindbergh is a proponent of the Jewish people, and they should not listen to the fear mongering through the airwaves. Bengelsdorf is the character that so many people hope never to be – the person so taken in by a politician’s “promises” — only to come to the sad realization that they were on the wrong side of history. But as Bengelsdorf travels down that inevitable road, he takes Evelyn Finkle (Winona Ryder) along for the ride. Evelyn is Bess’ sister and Philip and Sandy’s aunt. Evelyn has complete trust from the boys, which gives her the ability to pump them full of Lindbergh propaganda. But Evelyn is the black sheep of the family who has never been able to find her way in life. Now that she believes she has found her place in this new establishment, Evelyn defends it tooth and nail.
We can go into detail about every little character, because each one has their part to play. The cast give stunning performances that will likely garner them some awards recognition. But when it comes to the breakout star in the series, Kazan is at the top of the list. Kazan usually plays the side characters, or the hipster girlfriend, but is now given the opportunity to really show off her talents. Her mothering to her two boys, while also being Herman’s rock through the series, is incredibly realistic. There’s a scene towards the end of Part 6 where Kazan is the only one onscreen and has to create so much emotion to convey to the audience. A brilliant scene that rounds out a powerful performance.
The Plot Against America is a slow burn. There’s a lot of dialogue, and scenes consisting of planning and debate. After the second episode, I felt myself yearning for more drama, and for the story to progress faster. But I waited patiently, and by Part 3, the show began to take shape. What I didn’t realize was the early episodes were like water boiling, simmering, waiting to explode. You’re a fly on the wall, unwilling to remove yourself as this family struggles to stand strong against the anti-Semitic rhetoric that floods the airwaves—fueling the hate throughout the country. Once the story gets going, it takes a turn, and you find yourself on the edge as these characters never know the extent of how truly bad it may get.
The Plot Against America leaves us with an ambiguous ending, holding the mirror to ourselves – asking us how we will fight the injustices of our time. Though our duties as citizens can’t always fight off the constant discrepancies of the political world, we must stand strong. The ending, though similar to our times now, wasn’t necessarily the best ending to leave the series with. After a build-up of six parts, you may find yourself wanting a more substantial conclusion. The series may leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth after tuning in for six episodes.
However, a series such as The Plot Against America, deserves to be watched by many. No series, within the last few years, has been able to fully examine the state of our society by casting a grisly comparison to the situations we live in now. The Plot Against America may be a piece of fiction, but it’s a chilling thought that illustrates to us how little it takes to see our freedoms disappear.
The Plot Against America
Starring: Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, and John Turturro