Improbable as it may seem during a global pandemic, but HBO is airing a miniseries that could very well take your mind off of the coronavirus. And while it’s not a news program but a multipart movie, and has nothing to do with COVID-19, it does involve infections, national anxieties and doomsday scenarios.
HBO’s “The Plot Against America” (the first two episodes have already aired) is a remarkably fine and chilling adaptation of the Philip Roth novel by the same name. It was created and written by Ed Burns and David Simon, the same TV tandem that gave us “The Wire.” Roth’s political thriller presented them with the challenge of dramatizing the “what if” possibility that during the Holocaust, the United States followed the lead of Nazi Germany and erected its own barbed-wire concentration camps for American Jews—or at least stripped them of their urban Jewishness and converted them into heartland Americans.
Americanized Jews, naively confident in the constitutional liberties afforded to them under the Bill of Rights, would never see it coming.
This was Roth’s re-imagining of the presidential election of 1940. In his counter-history, Franklin Roosevelt, the man who brought America out from the Depression, does not lead it during World War II. In fact, America stays out of the war entirely. A wave of America First nativism overwhelms the country and gets behind the national hero Charles Lindbergh, a known anti-Semite and Hitler sympathizer. He immediately signs non-aggression pacts with Germany and Japan.
The Greatest Generation stays home and loses its moment.
It’s worse than that. America under the Lindbergh administration soon becomes a place where, as one character declares in the HBO film, “These goddam American Firsters have always been here, but they now have permission to crawl out from under a rock!”
Sound familiar? Early in the Trump administration, and particularly during the skirmish in Charlottesville, Va., where alt-right protestors chanted “Jews will not replace us,” there were, and are still, those who would suggest a dangerous parallel between the actual 2016 presidential election and the fictional “The Plot Against America”: an outside-the-box, pop-cultural celebrity of a candidate catches fire, rouses the public at large rallies, exhibits anti-democratic and authoritarian impulses, and taps into an American vein that is hateful towards immigrants, and especially Jews.
No doubt the results of the 2016 presidential election—the Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats; the hesitations to condemn right-wing, anti-Semitic hate; and the ceaseless scapegoating that is U.S. President Donald Trump’s go-to trump card—propelled HBO to green light this project.
The quality and overall dramatic scope of “The Plot Against America” is noteworthy for many reasons—not least of which is that it’s entertaining and suspenseful. (Those who read the novel know what happens at the end; I won’t spoil it here.) There has been a long history of trying to adapt Roth’s fiction into feature films—largely unsuccessfully. He wrote 32 books over a six-decade career, nearly all of which were novels. Eight, including “The Plot Against America,” have made it to a screen—from “Goodbye Columbus” (1969) to “American Pastoral” and “Indignation,” both in 2016. None has been especially noteworthy, although the obscure “Indignation” was probably the most critically acclaimed.
Of their many failings, these films never seemed to get the Jewish references right—the mix of street-wise banter and old-world neurosis, the suffocating history and caustic skepticism of greeners, the American brass rings that come with many attached strings. Both Bruce Springsteen and Philip Roth are faithful sons of working-class New Jersey, and despite Bruce’s Jewish-sounding name (he is not a Jew), the humiliations and slights of Asbury Park are nicely aligned with the shattered dreams of Roth’s Jewish Weequahic.
Unlike the other adaptations, “The Plot Against America” is pitch-perfect Roth. John Turturro is stellar as Rabbi Bengelsdorf, the quintessential court Jew and unwitting shill who comes to learn that his place in the Lindbergh administration is provisional. His South Carolina courtliness is valued only insofar as he can delude American Jews, worshippers of FDR, to briefly believe that the notoriously anti-Semitic aviator has no malice towards them.
Zoe Kazan is sublime as the intuitive homemaker who never fully buys into the premise that America was founded as a pogrom-free nation. She is the first to see that all is not right in America for Jews, and that brushing up on French and moving to Montreal is the next step for the Diaspora in North America.
Today, she would go the way of French Jews who are buying apartments in Tel Aviv.
“The Plot Against America” is a cautionary tale for when a country becomes incautious, its democratic values imperceptibly erode, true nativist feelings are unleashed, ancient prejudices receive makeovers, and the promises of inclusion and acceptance are revealed as delusions.
This was make-believe for Roth, a clever thought experiment. But you don’t need a pandemic to be reminded of the viral rot that sometimes infects the political culture of a nation. Vaccines then are only placebos; and sounding the alarm comes too late.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His latest work, “Saving Free Speech … from Itself,” was just published. He can be reached via his website.