How HBO's Gripping Miniseries 'The Plot Against America' Mixes Fact and Fiction
In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth's 2004 novel, the narrator, who shares the same name and more than a few biographical details with the author of the book, is a stamp-collecting, rule-following Jewish boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1940s. It's a time of political unrest, with violence brewing overseas and on the news, and many of the tense conflicts of the day play out at the dinner table. The first sentence, written in Roth's quasi-conversational style, notes a "perpetual fear" that hangs over the author's memories of the period.
That sense of turmoil, the feeling that the forces of history are bearing down on you, is reflected in the first episode of HBO's six-episode miniseries adaptation of The Plot Against America, which began airing Monday and was adapted by writer David Simon, the celebrated creator of The Wire and The Deuce, and his long-time collaborator Ed Burns. From the newsreel footage in the opening sequence to the closing shot of a child drawing a portrait under the covers with a flashlight, the premiere episode establishes a tone of anxiety and dread. Something awful is coming. His name is Charles Lindbergh.
Roth's novel and the HBO adaptation are both a form of alternate history, not that dissimilar from a more heightened example of the genre like Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which was turned into a popular series for Amazon a few years back. In the book, Roth forks away from historical reality right in the opening, observing that his terror as a child was partially rooted in the results of Lindbergh's presidency. Any reader with a cursory understanding of American history knows that Charles Lindbergh, a national hero following his record-breaking solo transatlantic flight piloting the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, was never a U.S. president; the real president during the lead-up to World War II was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in office from 1933 until he died in 1945. Here's the simple question driving The Plot Against America: What if FDR didn't maintain control of the country?
Instead of explicitly announcing that change upfront through voice-over narration or text-on-screen, the first episode of The Plot Against America, written by Simon and Burns, elegantly sketches out the details of young Philip's day-to-day existence. We meet his tough-but-caring father, Herman (Morgan Spector); his watchful homemaker mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan); his budding artist older brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis); his fretful unmarried aunt Evelyn (Wynona Ryder); his trouble-maker cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle); and other important characters, like John Turturro's Lindbergh-endorsing Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. In the book, the family is named the Roths, but here they're the Levins. Still, Simon, Burns, and director Minkie Spiro retain the nostalgic glow and attention-to-detail that defines Roth's depiction of growing up in a tight-knit Jewish community in mid-century America, a place where neighbors look out for each other and kids play in the streets.
But even in the first episode, the specter of Lindbergh, the platform of isolationism, and the growing public acceptance of anti-Semitism hangs over this seemingly idyllic picture. With Hitler moving across Europe and taking control of France, talk of American intervention grows more pronounced, with some pushing to stay out of the conflict and arguing it would be economically destructive following the Great Depression. At one point early in the episode, a projectionist at the local movie theater tells Herman that there's a lot of kindling out there and that Lindbergh, an outspoken isolationist and unapologetic fear-monger, if he runs for president, "could be the spark."
How much of this material is based on historical records? As Smithsonian Magazine notes in this informative piece, Lindbergh did describe Jews as "war agitators" and warned of "the infiltration of inferior blood.” He was a spokesperson and leader for the America First Committee, which was the public front for anti-interventionist policies during the build-up to what would become World War II. That clip you hear in the first episode of the miniseries where Lindbergh says "the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration" are pushing America towards war? It comes from a real speech he gave at a rally in 1941.
While he defeats FDR in the second episode, Lindbergh (played in the miniseries by Ben Cole) did not end up running for president in real life. (Indiana attorney Wendell Willkie was the Republican nominee in 1940 and lost to FDR by a margin of 28 states and 367 electoral votes.) In a revealing essay for the New York Times published around the release of The Plot Against America, Roth wrote that his inspiration for the book came from reading the bound proofs of an autobiography by historian Arthur Schlesinger, who noted that some Republicans wanted Lindbergh to run for president in 1940. Intrigued by the idea, Roth wrote a question in the margins: "What if they had?"
Roth's choice to pursue this thought experiment was undoubtedly influenced by his memories of the period and his experiences as a prominent (and often controversial) Jewish intellectual in the post-WWII period. He knew the material had an allegorical potency to it, exploring a dangerous path that America managed to avoid, but he didn't consider it a commentary on the Bush-era of 2004 when it was published. "Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman à clef to the present moment in America," he writes in the Times essay. "That would be a mistake."
Simon, who famously worked as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore before starting his career as a TV writer, grew up in a Jewish family in a different time period, a different city, and has now lived through a different set of experiences. (Roth died in 2018 at the age of 85.) In recent interviews, Simon has actively encouraged viewers to understand his adaptation through the lens of the present moment and the Trump presidency, where the fires of hate are once again being actively flamed.
"The reason to do the series today is not to settle the score of 1940 or to decide what America would have been under Charles Lindbergh, or to decide whether anti-Semitism could have ever achieved some sort of American gulag or American Holocaust for Jews here," he said to Variety. "This is all allegorical to this moment. It’s not Lindbergh now, it’s Donald Trump. And it’s not Jews who are the most vulnerable cohorts among recent immigrant groups, it’s people with black and brown skin, people who are Muslims." He framed the tension as a question in a recent Times interview: "Do you think we can go back to normal after Donald Trump?"
More than anything, HBO's adaptation nails a tricky dynamic to depict in a dramatic form like film or television: the sensation that significant, world-shaping historical events are unfolding around you and there's no way to control them. So much protagonist-driven storytelling demands that the viewer see every moment of profound change through the eyes of decisive leaders, careful policy-makers, and brave commanders. Art often puts you in the halls of power. The Plot Against America wisely positions you as an observer, a child hiding under the covers and hoping for the best.
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