HBO released this mini-series in March, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2003 alt-history novel. Set in 1940-1941, it resonated with many present-day audiences.
Cast and Crew
Directors: Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme
Written by David Simon, Ed Burns (best-known for The Wire) and Reena Rexrode
Based on the novel by Philip Roth
Zoe Kazan as Elizabeth “Bess” Levin
Morgan Spector as Herman Levin
Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel
Anthony Boyle as Alvin Levin
Michael Kostroff as Shepsie Tirchwell
Azhy Robertson as Philip Levin
Caleb Malis as Sandy Levin
David Krumholtz as Monty Levin
John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf
Jacob Laval as Seldon Wishnow
Steven Maier as Shushy Margulis
Graydon Yosowitz as Earl Axman
Ben Cole as Charles Lindbergh
Caroline Kaplan as Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Billy Carter as Walter Winchell
Orest Ludwig as Joachim von Ribbentrop
Kristen Sieh as Selma Wishnow
Ed Moran as Henry Ford
Daniel O’Shea as Burton K. Wheeler
Lee Tergesen as Agent Don McCorkle
In an alternate 1940, a pro-isolationist, Fascist-appeasing Charles Lindbergh runs for president and defeats Roosevelt. Whatever his actual beliefs might be, his ascension empowers pro-Fascists and racists in America, and has ripple effects throughout the world.
We live these events through the experiences of a working-class Jewish family in Newark, NJ.
The mini-series presents so many things so well, often employing a subtlety and realism that contrasts with The Handmaid’s Tale’s satiric excesses. Paranoia creeps into the characters’ minds so that they—and, by extension, we—stop trusting even people with laudable motives. Progressive-minded Evelyn Finkel and anti-war Rabbi Bengelsdorf believe they have the best intentions for everyone in mind as they slowly become collaborators with a government that increasingly collaborates with the Nazi regime. Sandy’s adolescent rebellion puts him on a track in the same direction, while restless Alvin’s most heroic inclinations will make him a criminal. An administration that wants to put America first becomes entangled with and indebted to despotic foreign governments.
The final episode may be one of the most uncomfortably tense, suspenseful pieces of television ever written, making it the best episode….
….And, paradoxically, the worst.
After a harrowing first half, the final episode pulls out a few deuses ex machina, and then meanders before reaching its uncertain conclusion. I found the final scenes appropriate. I’m still sitting in a room with the Levins, waiting to hear what happens next. But the final branch of the path the show takes to reach it seems forced and dramatically dishonest.
Acting: 6/6 The show has an exceptional cast. While Zoe Kazan may deserve an Emmy nomination, I was particularly impressed by the child actors, who hold their place with an experienced adult cast.
Story: 5/6 I’m really marking up for how well they handled the plot elements, up until the last half-hour.
Production: 6/6 Did they shoot on location in 1940s America?
Emotional Response: 5/6
Overall: 5/6: Not everyone will be (or has been) pleased with the depiction of Lindbergh but, really, he had certain leanings, and the show creates enough ambiguity to suggest its version of the historical figure possibly could have become trapped by political and social movements who rally around him, but which he himself does not fully endorse.
The show was tweaked to more clearly reflect the current American reality, and some of the parallels are a little too easy. It should be said that the showmakers didn’t have to tweak that much. If The Plot Against America makes you uncomfortable it’s because it should. The best alternate histories invent far less than the casual viewer might realize.
In total, The Plot Against America receives 35/42