Based on the Philip Roth novel, HBO’s six-part miniseries THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA answers the stalwart American proverb, “It [fascism] can’t happen here” with a heartbreaking, “What if it did?”, ultimately showing that yes, it can.
Produced by Ed Burns and David Simon of THE WIRE fame, the series focuses on a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey in 1940. It’s at this point that history takes a sudden turn from our own. Charles Lindbergh, an American aviation hero famous for making the first solo trans-Atlantic flight in his plane THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, announces he will run for president on the Republican ticket, challenging FDR by promising to keep America out of the war ravaging Europe. Unfortunately for the Levin family, Lindbergh has a worrisome record of antisemitism, and his proposed cabinet includes prominent antisemites like Henry Ford. Even more unfortunate for the Levins, Lindbergh wins.
Herman Levin watches in horror as America slowly slides toward fascism but stubbornly refuses to leave, believing “this is still America” and that his place is here. His wife Bess faces the change with growing terror and her response is more practical: They should move to Canada. Their son Sandy is a fan of Lindbergh’s and refuses to believe anything bad will happen, and their son Philip is too young to understand what’s happening and regards his parents’ anger and despair with constant anxiety. Meanwhile, Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) starts a relationship with Rabbi Bengesdorf (John Turturro), who works with the Lindbergh Administration to assure Jews the new president isn’t antisemitic, only to aid in developing its antisemitic policies like introducing Jews with “city culture” to the “real America” by enticing their children to visit and then outright deporting them to the heartland.
The result is real and emotionally powerful, providing a glimpse into what it must have been like for Jews in Germany during Hitler’s ascent to power and answering the question, “Why didn’t they all just leave?” But it’s happening here, which makes it even more heartbreaking. And it’s made even more real by showing the banality of evil, how evil is accomplished by average people after they brush their teeth and walk their dog and play ball with their kids. And the virus of evil, how evil spreads when evildoers feel they have permission from a higher power, whether it’s God or the President of the United States. For the Levin family, it’s not about facing jackboot-wearing stormtroopers, no, this is an American fascism, and it doesn’t come overnight and wearing black uniforms. They have to face growing fear, constant uncertainty, and final terror when it’s too late, like the proverbial frog being boiled one degree at a time.
The result is very powerful speculative fiction that rings true with resonant and grounded human drama, while thematically exploring strident issues such as: Why are people most strident at rejecting tyranny okay with it if their side are the tyrants? Should fascism ever be appeased? What can a single person do in the face of authoritarianism? What is each individual’s responsibility to resist? And can a slow slide to fascism be stopped before it entrenches?
Naturally, viewers will see big parallels to Trump’s authoritarianism and modern-day America, providing a view of the past that looks very much like today while providing an entirely believable and lived-in 1940s with its own identity. Not surprising as it comes from the makers of THE WIRE, this is incredibly powerful drama and one of the best things I’ve seen on a screen. Highly recommended.