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David Simon Works His Magic on HBO’s The Plot Against America

The Wire creator makes Philip Roth’s alternate history of World War II suddenly urgent.
  • Morgan Spector as Herman Levin and Zoe Kazan as Bess Levin in The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)
    Morgan Spector as Herman Levin and Zoe Kazan as Bess Levin in The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

    There’s a reason you stick with a David Simon HBO drama longer than you would other shows from a lesser talent. He’s earned our patience. Something is coming — you just know it is — even if that’s not clear from the first hour or even the second.

    The Plot Against America, which Simon and co-creator Ed Burns adapted from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, is an excellent case in point. You may have heard the elevator pitch. Charles Lindbergh runs a peace campaign to win the presidency over FDR in 1940, and unleashes an anti-Semitic reign of terror by America Firsters.

    Surprisingly little of that storyline, though, is evident through the first two parts of this six-part adaptation. Just as he did with inner-city Baltimore in The Wire, post-Katrina New Orleans in Treme, and 1970s New York in Deuce, Simon immerses us in the world of his drama before getting on with the story. A lot of the great shows do this — Mad Men, The Sopranos, Rectify, and Better Call Saul for starters — but no one lingers longer in the setup than Simon.

    “I’m always building the world before I fuck with it, you know?” Simon told me in an interview at the TCA winter press tour. “You can say that’s why I don’t have an audience. But I know how this story is supposed to be told, and I think I’m right.”

    In the case of The Plot Against America, Simon had help from Roth who, in the book’s opening chapters, re-creates in loving detail the Jewish neighborhood where he grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. And yet, as promised, Simon eventually does eff with this world. And when he does, it will surprise readers of Roth’s novel and leave many viewers with freshly unsettling thoughts about elections and their consequences.

    As in other Roth stories, The Plot Against America centers on a Jewish family in New Jersey that is, for all intents, the one that Philip Roth grew up in. The real and fictional Philip are both seven. Philip has an older brother named Sandy, a father named Herman and a mother named Bess. “We were a happy family in 1940,” Roth writes. “My parents were outgoing, hospitable people.” Their friends, all Jewish, mostly worked for themselves “or were foot-soldier salesmen like my father, out every day in the city streets and in people’s houses, peddling their wares by commission.” 

    It’s not until I re-read this wistful autobiographical passage that I gleaned Roth’s true intent, which was to show how easy it would be in 1940 to slice off American Jews from the rest of white America — just as was happening across Europe. This is what happens in Roth’s alternate playing-out of history, where Americans elect a Nazi admirer like Lindbergh on the promise that he’ll keep the U.S. out of the war.

    But whereas Roth offers only the briefest of introductions to his main characters before putting them in harm’s way, Simon moves more slowly. More than any other television auteur, he believes in the medium’s immersive powers, so much so that he’s willing to devote more than one-third of the running time of The Plot Against America to developing this world and the characters who inhabit it before taking us into the story’s dark places.

    It helps that, once again, Simon and Burns have put a remarkable ensemble in front of the camera to breathe life into Roth’s characters. There’s Zoe Kazan as Bess, Philip’s tender-hearted but nails-tough mother. (Kazan is the grandchild of Elia Kazan, the famous and infamous director. During the TCA winter press tour she was asked about her grandfather’s decision to inform on Communists in Hollywood, and her powerful response bowled me over, as well as many of my colleagues.)

    Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and John Turturro as Rabbi Bengelsdorf in The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

    Winona Ryder plays Bess’ ambitious sister Evelyn, Anthony Boyle is Philip’s fun-loving older cousin Alvin, and Caleb Malis is Sandy, his brooding big brother. Not too much is put on the shoulders of Azhy Robertson, the wide-eyed young actor who plays Philip, except to be nice to the wimpy neighbor boy Seldon (Jacob Laval).

    But the breakthrough performance here comes from Morgan Spector as Herman. He brings the smoldering intensity of a 1940s actor to this role and gives him some depth that is missing in Roth. In the book Philip’s dad is given to exclamation-laden outbursts and seems like a screamer, so that when a stranger — feeling empowered by Lindbergh’s ascent — tells Herman he’s a “loudmouth Jew,” well, it kind of fits.

    When that insult is hurled at Spector, however, it comes across as the unwarranted and bigoted threat that it is. Herman is forced to suffer one fool and indignity after the next as the country and community he loves descend into madness and violence. Spector broadcasts this pain and outrage through square-jawed expressions, struggling mightily to keep his most dangerous thoughts under his fedora. Whether that is just the gentlemanly restraint of that era or a proud Jewish man carefully navigating the terrain of Lindbergh’s America, Spector commands every scene he’s in.

    John Turturro’s pretty good too, though his is the strangest character in the whole show. The Italian-American actor plays Rabbi Bengelsdorf, a scion of South Carolina Jews with a luscious drawl who warmly stands up for the Confederacy and candidate Lindbergh. Although it’s clear early on that he is a tool — the “Jewish spokesman” propped up to convince Protestants that it’s OK to back Lindy — Turturro is also, disarmingly, the most religiously upright and personally appealing character in The Plot Against America.

    Ben Cole as Charles Lindbergh and John Turturro as Rabbi Bengelsdorf in HBO’s The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

    As anti-Semitic threats mount, many of Herman’s friends and colleagues urge restraint. They don’t want war. They don’t want trouble. Sixteen centuries of being scapegoated for the problems of Western society will do that. The respectable thing is to go on with your life and think about Lindbergh, Hitler, Henry Ford, and all the other Jew-hating politicians, “This too will pass.” These opposing tectonic plates — accommodation and conscience — grind away with greater force and pressure as The Plot of America rolls on to its climatic final scenes.

    Which brings us back to David Simon, and why a project he’d initially passed on shortly after the re-election of Barack Obama was suddenly too urgent to pass up again. Philip Roth once said that he’d never intended The Plot Against America as an allegory. Today, it’s an allegory.

    “Sometimes you have to look at something that is parallel, not perfectly parallel, but close enough that you’re saying, Oh, we’ve been here before,” Simon told me. “Not to take anyone off the hook for supporting demagoguery or xenophobia or racism, but there is a significant plurality of Americans who have not been attended to by their government, who have not had the opportunity to self-govern in an intelligent way, whose needs are not being met, whose fundamental economic viability has been made open to question, who do not feel vested in the future of the country.

    “That’s the premise of our current problem. And that's the moment that Lindbergh seizes upon to demonize others: They’re less American than you are. It’s not that American voters are rubes. They have to be mistreated and disregarded. And that’s when a demagogue goes to work.”

    Almost scrupulously faithful to the book for six hours, Simon deviates sharply from the deus ex machina resolution in Roth’s book to offer a more audacious ending that pivots very deliberately to our own time. I doubt anyone with a decent historical knowledge of American politics will object to it, though some may find it heavy-handed.

    As with The Wire and Treme and his 2016 political drama Show Me a Hero, Simon is not interested in telling us how great a society we live in, but how fragile the things we cherish about our lives actually are.

    “If democracy works, it’s exhausting and it’s quotidian, it’s never finished, and it’s always under threat,” said Simon. “Every day we’re all supposed to get up as citizens and kill a few snakes. And if we don’t, pretty soon, you know, it’s all snakes.”

    The Plot Against America premieres tonight at 9:00 PM on HBO, with subsequent episodes airing Monday nights through April.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: The Plot Against America, HBO, David Simon, John Turturro, Morgan Spector, Winona Ryder, Zoe Kazan