‘The Plot Against America’ – Populism divides the population
It’s November 1940 and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh has just defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential election. What lay ahead for the people of the United States are deep divisions and rampant anti-semitism as the xenophobic populist turns the country toward fascism.
That’s the alternate history premise of “The Plot Against America,” a six-part miniseries premiering Monday, March 16, on HBO. Written and executive produced by David Simon (“The Wire”) and Ed Burns (“The Brothers McMullen”), the series views the storyline through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in Newark, N.J.
Herman Levin (Morgan Spector, “Homeland”) is a family man and insurance agent with ambition and many opinions and he isn’t enthralled with the new chief executive. Neither is his homemaker wife Bess (Zoe Kazan, “Ruby Sparks”), especially when they both notice anti-Jewish sentiment roiling in their community during a house-hunting excursion with their sons Philip and Sandy (Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis).
Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder, “Stranger Things”) also isn’t particularly crazy about the new president but she is very fond of one of his key supporters, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro, “The Night Of”), so in the interest of perhaps snagging a husband, the middle-aged woman starts attending pro-Lindbergh rallies, unbeknownst to her family.
The story is based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name, which Simon feels has particular resonance today.
“I think it’s fairly apparent that the political paradigm that’s now — not only in America, but internationally you’re seeing it, in terms of populism and nationalism and the rise of xenophobia and fear of the other, that’s the reason this got made,” Simon explains. “… Somebody came to me with the book about five years ago … and said, ‘I think this would make a great miniseries.’ And I said to him, ‘I enjoyed the novel. It’s a nice little artifact. It was fascinating in its moment, but … that doesn’t seem to be our political moment.’
“So, you know, how wrong was I?” he continues. “The reason to do this is that … because of the forces that are now in play politically, the piece is incredibly relevant.”
Comparisons have been made to the Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” which imagines life in an America had Axis powers won World War II, but Kazan insists this is a completely different beast.
“It isn’t about the Nazis conquering America,” she argues. “It’s about American ideology being turned into a nationalistic, edging on fascistic ideology. It’s about how our thinking can be turned so easily and it’s really about in some ways the history of our country, those ideologies coming to the fore and that it could happen again.”
“It will,” Simon agrees. “There will always be a moment at which there is some political advantage to saying, ‘Somebody is less American.’ And you should be worried about that.”