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‘The Plot Against America’ falters at times, but still delivers a hauntingly prevalent message

‘The Plot Against America’ falters at times, but still delivers a hauntingly prevalent message

‘The Plot Against America’ falters at times, but still delivers a hauntingly prevalent message
April 25
15:00 2020

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had served two terms as America’s leader by 1940. The Democrat had just spent eight years getting the country back on track after the Great Depression, and it seemed the turmoil that plagued the ’30s was out of sight. But with the threat of another world war propelled by Nazi Germany looming, Roosevelt ran for a third term (prior to the laws prohibiting this). On Nov. 5, 1940, FDR won the reelection for presidency.

But what if he didn’t?

HBO’s “The Plot Against America,” directed by David Simon and based on the late Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, explores a chilling “what if” in America’s history — what if the election of 1940 was won by an anti-Semitic white nationalist, a Hitler for the States?

The six-episode miniseries follows the Jewish Levin family: husband Herman (Morgan Spector), wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), and sons Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson). They live peacefully among their religious community in Newark, New Jersey, and even with white nationalist Charles Lindbergh (who never ran for office in real life, but did believe in eugenics and anti-Semitism) running against FDR, Herman thought there was no way Lindbergh could win (sound familiar?). But in this version of reality, he does, and suddenly the people whom Bess calls the “America Firsters” have control of the White House. With a Nazi sympathizer running the country, the Levins’ identity is chipped away at by people around them who slowly reveal their true colors.

“We only think we’re Americans,” Bess tells Herman.

The show isn’t just about the Jews versus the anti-Semitics, but about the splintering of the Levin family as they try to navigate a country that is no longer for them. Bess wants to flee to Canada while patriotic Herman won’t leave his country, and it doesn’t help that Bess’ sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and her new love Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) support Lindbergh because he kept the U.S. out of the war and was good for the economy. Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) demands a more hands-on approach to dealing with the Nazis, wanting to run off and join the fight even though it was illegal.

It’s hard to watch as the family fractures and the hatred for Jews starts to permeate Newark, but the earlier episodes often fail to pack the punch they should. First off, the show struggles with pacing, as much of “The Plot Against America’s” plot is stuffed in the back half of the production. The first two episodes are spent setting everything up, so parts of the last four episodes are rushed, not allowing enough time for the events to really gain momentum and earn their merit. The result is some scenes seem to have came out of nowhere, speckled in for some added tension but undeserving of their emotional resonance. Episodes three and four didn’t fully deliver for me, namely with the Levin family trip to Washington and the U.S. state dinner with Evelyn and the Rabbi.

A chunk of Alvin’s storyline in the fourth and fifth episodes fell short, too, but thankfully Anthony Boyle’s stellar performance made watching him more entertaining. He nailed it as a mouthy, reckless Jersey kid who’s well-meaning but thinks he’s invincible and just desperately wants to be a hero. While his plot fumbled, he gave a remarkable representation of adolescent youth in times of war and crisis. Herman and Bess’ scenes together suffer the most, and a few of their arguments fall flat because they didn’t feel earned. Despite this, they’re both still convincing in their roles.

Evelyn’s storyline was more solid, and Ryder did a wonderful job of making her Jewish character’s commitment to a Nazi-supporting president seem plausible. When she’s front-and-center, talking about how “good” Lindbergh is, she seems convincing — delusional, yes, but still self-assured in her beliefs. But when she’s not talking and just barely in frame, Ryder uses subtleties to convey her apprehensiveness. She rubs her hands, purses her lips or raises her eyebrows like she’s bracing herself for a loud noise. Ryder’s nuances, if you watch her closely, capture the fear behind Evelyn’s need to assimilate to survive.

Thankfully, the finale makes up for the faltering of the middle episodes. There’s a killer sequence between Bess and Evelyn, and Herman and Sandy’s rendezvous adds some palpable tension. Things boil over with the return of the Ku Klux Klan and the implementation of martial law. Suddenly, all the scenes that seemed out of place before are grounded by the force of the finale. There’s now a real value behind what’s unfolding around the Levins. I just wish it had come sooner.

And perhaps the most compelling perspective we see if that of little Philip, who is based on Roth himself (born in 1933, he grew up in the World War II era). Nothing really happens directly to Philip, but instead we follow him around as he witnesses the strife between his mother and father, his mother and aunt, his father and brother. He witnesses the impact of war on Alvin and the rise of anti-Semitism in his neighborhood. Something about seeing this through the eyes of a frightened child, who’s too young to fully understand anything yet old enough to realize the world is crumbling, is unnerving.

Along with Philip, Herman’s character is disquieting because he transcends the 1940s and represents how a lot of us feel and think today — through stubborn refusal to believe that things can actually get that bad. It’s perhaps the most potent part of the series. Behind the incredible costumes, set design and music of the ’40s,  “The Plot Against America” isn’t just a glance back in time at what could have happened but also a reflection of what is happening. The alternate reality Roth created 16 years ago is still a relevant watch today.

This really could have been a monumental series had Simon not wasted a third of it setting the scene, and it’s unfortunate it wasn’t as dynamic as it could have been. Despite it’s fumbling, though, “The Plot Against America” is still full of compelling scenes aided by top-tier acting. For all the trouble of episodes three and four, five and six bring this show back to where it should be, and Simon is unapologetic in implying that the plot against America didn’t dissolve with the demise of Hitler. As the finale fades out to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s America to Me,” Simon wraps up his final message.

The America first-ers still exist. They just traded their white hoods for tiki torches.

Final rating: 3.75/5

Featured Illustration: Olivia Varnell

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Haley Arnold

Haley Arnold

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