The Plot Against America
The opening credits of The Plot Against America take us on a journey through the lives of three historical figures who directly impact the series. We feel their presence in every scene, even if they’re nowhere to be found.
We first see Charles Lindbergh preparing to fly the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to France on the world’s first solo nonstop transatlantic flight. Upon successfully landing in Paris 33 and a half hours later, the 25-year-old Air Mail pilot immediately becomes an international celebrity and a symbol of American exceptionalism. Lindbergh isn’t just the Lone Eagle. He’s also “Lindy,” the aviator hero next door who projects greatness and inspires devotion in the hearts of many. As he’s welcomed by a grateful nation, it’s possible to see glimmers of leadership in his eyes, but it’s unclear how he will use his platform.
Then it’s on to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, who entered office in the midst of the Great Depression, and whose sweeping economic programs helped Americans recover from the crisis. At first, we see broken bottles, food lines, and trucks filled with workers before the scene shifts to FDR’s 1932 campaign. One sign at a campaign rally reads, “Times are hard. The end is near. Vote Roosevelt and have no fear.” After his election, we see images of Americans back to work, spurred by the actions of the recently established National Recovery Administration. In fact, the song that plays over the credits, “The Road Is Open Again,” comes from a Warner Bros. short film of the same name created to promote the new agency. As the chorus goes, “There’s a new day in view / There is gold in the blue / There is hope in the hearts of men / All the world’s on the way / To a sunnier day / ’Cause the road is open again!”
That hope and optimism quickly morphs into fear as we’re transported to Germany, where Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party are on the rise. Initially, it’s campaign rallies and groups of Aryan children raising the United States and Nazi flags. But then we see fighter planes shooting from the sky, mass marches lit by torches, book burnings, and then, finally, scenes of anti-Semitic violence that eventually erupts into Kristallnacht, the pogrom that preceded the Holocaust, demonstrating how easily violent rhetoric influences direct action.
David Simon and Ed Burns, working from Philip Roth’s acclaimed 2004 novel, bring together these figures into an alternate history in which Lindbergh runs against Roosevelt in 1940 on an anti-interventionist platform born out of his sympathy for Hitler’s government, wins the election, and sends the country hurtling toward Fascism. In the novel, Roth presents this history as an adult’s recollection of a terrible moment experienced during early adolescence. In this case, it’s seen through the eyes of his 7-year-old fictional counterpart growing up in a middle-class Jewish household in Newark, New Jersey, who watched as he and everyone he knows slowly become otherized in their own country, despite the fact they are all Americans.
Simon and Burns expand the purview and trade out the name “Roth” for “Levin,” but otherwise mostly hew to the novel’s framework. We’re slowly introduced to the Levin family in the hour or so before family dinner. Philip Levin (Azhy Robertson, a.k.a. Henry in Marriage Story) plays a game with his friends in the street called “I Declare War.” His mother, Elizabeth or “Bess” (Zoe Kazan), and aunt, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), watch over him with a close eye while chatting with the neighbors. His older brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), a burgeoning artist, carefully draws their cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who poses for him in the street. Eventually, the family patriarch Herman (Morgan Spector) returns home from work as an insurance agent, eager to eat a Shabbat dinner with his family.
Almost all of “Part 1” chronicles the lives of the Levin family and their community in June 1940, with episode co-writers Simon and Burns going to great lengths to capture the “normalcy” that’s about to be disrupted. In short, the Levins are a pretty typical American family with fairly commonplace secrets and problems. Evelyn engages in an affair with a married man in the city who has no intention of leaving his wife, much to the disapproval of her sister and mother. Alvin is a small-time hood who can’t hold down a job, runs with a shady crowd, and worries the hell out of his uncle Herman. Sandy looks up to Alvin and begins to distance himself from his younger brother. Finally, poor Philip is slowly seeing glimpses of the adult world, mostly through dirty sketches passed in class and rifling through his friend’s mother’s underwear drawer, but also through overheard arguments and comments he doesn’t understand. Robertson’s soft, innocent eyes project a world of confusion and pain that will only grow in the years to come.
But amid these intimate complications, tension escalates both culturally and politically. A family trip to the Union neighborhood, to where the Levins could move if Herman accepts a promotion, takes a nasty lefty turn when they encounter a busy German beer garden. As Herman stares them down, muttering “Sons of bitches” and “Fascist bastards,” you can hear the cries of the patrons: “Go back to Delancey Street!” “Wrong turn!” “What are you looking at?” If the Levins moved to Union, they’d likely be the only Jewish family in the neighborhood. The best-case scenario? They would be ignored, like Bess was when she grew up in a similar situation. The worst case? They would be in immediate danger.
The nascent anti-Semitism soon receives a validating seal of approval by none other than Charles Lindbergh, who gives a speech at an America First Committee rally, in which he strongly implies that American Jews are war agitators, labeling them “other peoples.” (Note: this is a real speech Lindbergh gave, and Simon and Burns transcribe his words exactly.) Herman hears this on the radio and blows up, but soon the whole neighborhood is out in the streets discussing Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and the strong possibility that he runs for president. These scenes are some of the most evocative in Roth’s novel, but I’ll admit I was a little worried how they would be depicted here. It would be too easy for Simon and Burns to score cheap topicality points by overemphasizing the connection between the fears of the Weequahic community in alt-1940 and the ones enervating us right now under President Trump. Thankfully, these scenes don’t wink-wink-nudge-nudge the comparison, but Simon and Burns allow the idea to charge them anyway. People say things like, “This is how it starts, everybody thinking they can work with the guy,” and “When a man tells you he’s a son of a bitch, believe him,” but there’s no attempt to hit you over the head with the obvious. Spector’s convincingly palpable rage alongside the neighborhood’s diverging voices provide a compelling simulation of a chorus reacting to major historical news in real time. It turns out that heightened political discussions about impending oppressive regimes tend to have a similar tone and language.
Simon and Burns weave the political into the personal with expert ease. Lindbergh’s name initially pops up in passing when Herman visits his projectionist friend Shepsie (Michael Kostroff, who played Maurice Levy on The Wire and is a frequent Simon collaborator), both of whom talk about his candidacy in the abstract even as they admit he’s a real threat. At this point, Lindbergh is still conversation and a remote source of anxiety, but he’s not battering down the hatches just yet. Herman still believes that Walter Winchell and FDR can squash the threat before it gets any bigger. Still, people like Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), whose latest speech at the Newark Teachers Union meeting attended by Evelyn fervently downplays Jewish identity over a broadly unified “American” one, are bringing Lindbergh’s rhetoric closer to the Levins’ neighborhood. Herb (David Pittu), a gas-station owner and mechanic who hired Alvin as a personal favor to Herman, talks seriously about how a threat like Lindbergh won’t operate within social and civic norms, and they’ll gain the upper hand because their enemies will play by the rules. “FDR is playing with one hand tied behind his back like this is some kind of gentlemen’s sport,” he says with a slight crack in his voice.
In sharp contrast, however, some of the slice-of-life scenes around the neighborhood can feel a little hammy and forced. The Alvin material suffers the most: the hoodlum chatter errs on the familiar side, and Boyle often relies too heavily on his period-appropriate Noo Yawk accent to sell the dialogue. Similarly, Evelyn feels shoehorned into the main action at this point (though, not-so-spoiler alert, she factors in more prominently in later episodes), and the scene between her and her city lover feels swiped from much lesser material. Simon and Burns succeed in portraying a tight-knit community and how an active neighborhood works via accumulation of detail, but in the process of gradually building the world, certain scenes stick out in ways they rarely do in Simon projects.
Still, the final scene packs a punch that foreshadows the deleterious events to come. Director Minkie Spiro cuts between scenes at the movie theater, where Herman and Shepsie watch newsreel footage of the Nazis slowly taking over Europe, and in the Union neighborhood, where Alvin and his friends stage an attack on two drunk German beer-garden patrons in retaliation for an anti-Semitic assault against a Jewish ice-cream-store clerk from their neighborhood. At one point, Spiro seamlessly transitions between both scenes by overlapping the light from the film projector and the light from a car headlight. History isn’t abstract. The world’s events always trickle down to the smallest neighborhoods.
As Herman watches footage of the Nazis rounding up Jews and other undesirables in Poland to “separate them” from the general population, Alvin and his friends fight the German sympathizers while slurs are thrown in their faces. The message is fairly clear: Soon it could be Alvin and Herman and Bess and little Philip who are being rounded up by Lindbergh’s people, and the only proportionate response to such a threat is to meet it with force. Alvin is tired of turning the other cheek, of accepting that the strong eat the weak, of watching his friends get stepped on because of their ethnicity, so he takes matters into his own hands. America is their homeland. It’s all they’ve ever known. But bit by little bit, their safety and security start to collapse.
The episode’s final scene devastates in a much quieter register. We see Sandy wake up in the middle of the night, hide under the covers with a flashlight, and sketch a portrait of Lindbergh from a stolen newspaper clipping. He might be verboten in the house, but Lindbergh still radiates mythos and heroism. No one, not even Sandy, the elder son of middle-class Jews from Newark, is immune to such power and symbolism. If he can be entranced by his image, so can anyone.
Other Stars & Stripes
• The 1933 Warner Bros. short film The Road Is Open Again has a hilariously propagandistic plot: A songwriter, played by actor Dick Powell, struggles to come up with a song to promote the National Recovery Administration, but when he falls asleep, he’s visited by the spirits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, who preach Roosevelt’s greatness and the administration’s promise to end unemployment. Suddenly, the songwriter, overcome with patriotic creativity, sings a newly invented song to them on the spot.
• When Alvin looks at Sandy’s portrait of him, he says he looks like James Cagney from Angels With Dirty Faces, who plays a notorious gangster who holds terrible sway over the local neighborhood kids. Evelyn thinks he looks like Leo Gorcey, an actor who became famous for being the leader of a fictional tough-kid gang called the Dead End Kids (later renamed the East Side Kids and then, when they became adults, the Bowery Boys), who starred in a series of films and serials together.
• “I don’t even know how they knew.” “That you were a Jew? They always know.”