With movie theaters prudently shut for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and many people hunkered down at home, there are several lights in a time of disruption, one of which is HBO’s new six-part miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” based on the novel by Philip Roth and adapted for the screen by David Simon.
Roth’s novel, published in 2004, was part of a late, third wave of his artistic mastery. In it he depicted a family not unlike his own in his native Newark, New Jersey, in 1940, when he and the character Philip are 7. The Nazis are on the march in Europe and President Franklin Roosevelt is running for a third term. FDR is facing headwinds from isolationists who fear he will involve America in another foreign war.
The book and Simon’s HBO series revel in the warp and feel of lower-middle-class ethnic urban life at the end of The Depression. The nuclear Roth family, parents Herman and Bess and children Philip and older brother Sandy, are native-born Americans who have seen their comfort and security seem to rise from the first generation to the second – that is, their acceptance, which is one key to their collective mind-set. It’s not just the Roths, of course, but Simon has carefully created this cocoon of assimilation in all its domestic particulars, all its comfortable Americanism, including the fascination with the Dodgers, whose games are broadcast on the radio.
Walter Winchell’s evening commentary is on the radio, too, which brings all the families out on the street for discussions in the first episode of “The Plot Against America,” which aired Monday. (The second will be released Monday, March 23). Charles Lindbergh, the heroic aviator, becomes a Republican candidate for president, running far to the right of Roosevelt, dog-whistling to pro-Nazi German-Americans, among others; and singling out American Jews like the Roths as disloyal, which also finds a receptive audience. In this drama, Winchell is one of the few to decry Lindbergh’s Nazi appeasement, calling the famous lone eagle the lone ostrich. “Didja hear him?” says Herman.
Simon, who is best known for his exquisite five-season drama series, “The Wire,” does something different but equally beautiful here with his attention turned to domestic tranquility. We know from the novel that Lindbergh will defeat Roosevelt in 1940, which is what sets the drama in motion, caroming off the Roths. Will they all live? Will they be safe?
In 2004, this counter-factual history did not seem to have a pressing present application. Sixteen years later, after the rise of Trump, who is nothing like the Lindbergh of history and imagination, and in a time of ghostly crisis, it is still a savory period piece.
About the imagination at play here: “The most shocking part of ‘The Plot Against America’s’ first episode is the one that’s absolutely true” reads a Slate article posted Monday, about a speech by Lindbergh heard in the show and actually given by Lindbergh in Des Moines on Sept. 11, 1941, with the retrospectively ominous title, “Who are the war agitators?”
“Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength,” Lindbergh declaimed. “History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention (in Europe). But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
He was not attacking Jews, Lindbergh continued. But the Jews, “for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.”
He was heavily applauded.