Tuesday, May 5, 2020

White Makes Right: “The Plot Against America”

Right now, with state governors being accused of Nazism for not allowing the opening of gyms and hair salons in the midst of a health pandemic, The Plot Against America seems timely indeed. This six-part HBO miniseries, based on a 2004 novel by Philip Roth, wrestles with the idea of real Nazis and with powerful Americans all too ready to ally with them to achieve their own hateful goals.

We’re all familiar by now with Quentin Tarantino’s playful reshaping of our twentieth-century past.  In Tarantino’s hands, Adolf Hitler is assassinated and Sharon Tate emerges unscathed from the Manson murder plot. These are films that relieve us—for the moment—from the burden of history by showing us that real-life horror has a happy outcome. The Plot Against America goes in the opposite direction, starting with a happily middle-class Newark family, circa 1940, and positing the rise of a fascist ideology that puts their hopes and their very lives in danger.

The linchpin of all this in Roth’s novel is the unexpected election of “lone eagle” Charles Lindbergh over Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency. Lindbergh, the airline pilot who became a national hero for his solo trip across the Atlantic, is well known to have harbored anti-Semitic views and  to have sympathetic feelings for the German high command. (He also, in later decades, secretly fathered seven children by three different German women while remaining married to Anne Morrow Lindbergh—but that’s a story for another day.) Running on an anti-war platform that favors a friendly alliance with Nazi Germany, President Lindbergh puts in place an “America First” regime that looks down on immigrants and their offspring, and is all too quick to use race-baiting to sow domestic discord.

The Levin family—husband, wife, and two young sons—are proudly Jewish and proudly American. (In his novel, Roth chose to give them the first and last names of his own family members and settle them all at his own boyhood New Jersey address.) They admire Lindbergh’s achievements, but are leery of him as a political figure. Not so one of the story’s most enigmatic characters, Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who through a combination of personal vanity and misguided belief is sure the Lindbergh presidency will be a glorious one, in which he has personally been tapped to play a key role.  His marriage to Bess Levin’s idealistic sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) puts the Levin family at the center of the drama, when they are “selected” to move to Kentucky as part of a new federal program designed to absorb them more thoroughly into the American fabric. Of course, as Rabbi Bengelsdorf fails to see, its long-range implications are ominous for anyone who deviates slightly from the American mainstream.  (Kentucky, where kindly farmers co-exist with the Ku Klux Klan, does not exactly come off well.) 

As fascistic impulses rise in the United States, tensions pit  cousin against cousin and father against son. A powerful moment near the end involving sisters Evelyn and Bess (a deeply sympathetic Zoe Kazan) shows what can be accomplished in a scene that triumphantly passes the so-called Bechdel Test: two women talking together about something other than a man. Writers David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) have been deeply faithful to the work of Roth, who consulted with them at the beginning of the project. But, as conveyed in a fascinating podcast about the making of the series, they go Roth one better in figuring out how to end their drama. It’s election day in America, and we can all share the shivers that date implies.

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