Roush Review: A Chilling ‘Plot Against America’

The Plot Against America HBO Review
Michele K. Short/HBO

Beyond bleak as a social allegory, Philip Roth’s provocative alt-history novel The Plot AgainstAmerica draws its power by focusing on an ordinary family buffeted by intolerance. David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) have adapted the work into a riveting six-part limited series for HBO, opening in 1940, when a war-averse nation turns from FDR’s New Deal to the isolationist fervor of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, electing the celebrated hero as president.

Appeasement with Hitler’s Nazi regime and tacit anti-Semitism on the home front soon follow. So much for the Greatest Generation.

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Watching things unfold with increasing unease from their Newark, New Jersey home is the working-class Jewish family of Herman and Bess Levin (Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan, both excellent). They fear the rise of fascism with good cause, as Jews are vilified as warmongers and an insidious “Office of American Absorption” inaugurates a pilot program in which minority youths like the Levins’ own hero-worshiping son Sandy (Caleb Malis) are sent to the heartland — in his case, a Kentucky farm family — for cultural assimilation. (“I’m not American enough?” the combative Herman rails.)

Artistic Sandy is too blinded by hero worship of “Lucky Lindy” to notice, and spinster Aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) is seduced into complacent complicity by a conservative rabbi and Washington inside (a chillingly obtuse John Turturro). But 10-year-old son Philip (Marriage Story‘s soulful Azhy Robertson) solemnly senses all the troubles, becoming increasingly nervous while his carefree hothead Uncle Alvin (the charismatic Anthony Boyle) heads to Canada so he can enlist and fight the Nazis overseas. In this world, such an act of patriotism puts him in the cross-hairs of suspicious feds.

John Turturro The Plot Against America HBO

(Michele K. Short/HBO)

As Plot‘s narrative builds in tension, with an emboldened Ku Klux Klan on the streets and Nazi officials treated to a White House state dinner, crossing the border sounds ever more appealing. You begin to realize just how difficult it must have been for European natives of the time to consider fleeing when their own countries turned against them and even media critics were silenced. Make your own conclusions about how relevant this nightmare scenario is to the global politics of today, and have a good shudder.

The Plot Against America, Series Premiere, Monday, March 16, 9/8c, HBO