Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.
-- Philip from Philip Roth's The Plot Against America
This is a tough one. Philip Roth's book The Plot Against America was published in 2004, it is a re-imagining of history where isolationist, anti-war candidate Charles Lindbergh (with Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler as his Vice-President) runs for US President in 1940 and defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roth's story is told from the vantage point of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey, as the Lindbergh supporters and their America First Committee-types take over. Lindbergh makes deals with Hitler and Nazi Germany, reaching “The Iceland Understanding,” as well as with Tojo’s Japan, “The Hawaii Understanding.” His main goal is to keep the United States from war, but with a serious undercurrent of fascism and anti-semitism.
If this sounds far-fetched, these views have historic proof. This is VERY much the historically proven view of the abdicated King George the Sixth, the then Duke of Windsor, as shown in Netflix’s The Crown. See Season 2 episode 6, “Vergangenheit.” Lindbergh was probably the most Nazi-sympathetic American. Both men were guests of the Nazi government and toured the war machinery and other government “installations.” So this is alt-history with the weight of real historical roots.
The HBO adaptation of this book is produced by David Simon (The Wire) and Ed Burns, and they pull no punches. A lot goes on in the six episodes. We follow the Levin family: father Herman (Morgan Spector) an on the rise insurance man and New Deal leftie, mother Bess (Zoe Kazan) taking care of their two boys, the older Sandy (Caleb Malis) moody yet a talented artist, and younger Philip (Azhy Robinson). The other three key characters are Alvin (Anthony Boyle) , their orphaned nephew, Bess’ sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and Lindbergh-supporting Rabbi Lionel Benglesdorf (John Turturro).
The series starts in 1940. It’s hard for us to remember, but due to his completing the first solo New York to Paris flight, Charles Lindbergh was a true American hero. He was much more famous and beloved than, for example, a reality TV host. From the first episode on, the Jews living in Newark are still shown as the ‘other,’ forced to live in their own neighborhoods, enduring open antisemitism. Herman Levin believes in America, and thinks of himself as an American, not a Jew first. He will be disabused of that notion.
In the second episode, Lindbergh wins the presidency, to a stunned disbelief of the Jewish community, which already sees the underbelly of the Nazi movement. Troubled nephew Alvin tires of inaction and enlists in the Canadian military to “kill some Nazis.”
“Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.” -- Philip Roth's The Plot Against America
By episode three, Alvin is a radar expert who gets his leg blown off while serving in Norway. To call him disillusioned is an understatement. Sister Evelyn is involved with Rabbi Benglesdorf (a widower) who is on board with Lindbergh’s disturbing Jewish resettlement policies. They devise a program called ‘Just Folks’ to send urban Jewish kids to the US heartland. Levin's boy Sandy is lined up to go live on a farm in Kentucky. The family takes a long-planned trip to Washington, DC that is met with overt and ugly antisemitism from both citizens and the police. Once home, Bess starts making plans to take the family to Canada.
In part four, Rabbi Benglesdorf (and his now assistant and fiancee) Evelyn get close to the White House, meeting with First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who convinces them to attend a state dinner welcoming Nazi foreign minister Von Ribbentrop. At the event, they are snubbed by Lindbergh, talked down to by real life famous antisemite (and in-story cabinet member) Henry Ford, and Evelyn dances with Von Ribbentrop, making for an awkward newsreel moment.
This series moves like a terrible slow-motion car crash. You can see what’s coming but no one seems to be able to stop it. The new Jewish resettlement program is now called ‘Homestead 42,’ in which employers get whole families to move out to the heartland. Herman and his family are marked for Kentucky, but Herman quits his good insurance job and starts working for his brother’s produce business, they won’t have to move, yet.
Jewish news reporter Walter Winchell loses his job, and decides to run for president. At a rally in Newark, attended by Herman, a bunch of brown shirts show up and cause a riot, while the police do nothing. It’s a chilling and terrifying scene. The battered Herman goes home and Bess says they must go to Canada.
In the packed finale, Walter Winchell is assassinated and there is an outbreak of anti-Jewish violence. Alvin, the radar expert, is contacted by the Canadians in a plot to assassinate Lindbergh, Alvin tracks Lindbergh’s plane with radar and it disappears. Vice President Wheeler takes over, declares martial law, closes the borders (leaving the Levins stranded in the US), and uses the FBI to round up all the Jews he can, including Rabbi Bengelesdorf. All kinds of mayhem breaks out across the US as Jewish shops are attacked, sort of a ‘night of the long knives’ meets Kristallnacht. There is an intense and heartbreaking scene where Evelyn, sure they are coming for her next, begs Bess to take her in. Bess will have none of it, telling Evelyn she loves her, but she “never wants to see her again.” The acting from Zoe Kazan is astounding. First Lady Lindbergh, whisked away to a mental hospital by Wheeler, is able to get a radio broadcast taped. In a bit of a deus ex machina, she calls for a stop to the FBI investigations, to the violence, and for a special election in 1942 for president.
The public follows Mrs. Lindbergh, and the series ends with a beautiful, unsettling montage of the election, set to Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s America To Me,’ over images of people voting, ballot boxes being stolen and ballots burned. They leave it at that, will FDR win? It’s not spelled out.
This is one of the most thought provoking pieces of television I have seen in a long time. I urge you to watch this, I think you’ll get a lot out of it. I just kept saying to myself, this can’t happen here…
It can’t happen here? Right?
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