TV Review | HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’ Timely, Chilling

John Turturro
John Turturro plays Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (Photo by Michele K. Short-HBO)

HBO will debut a new six-part miniseries beginning March 16 that’s sure to resonate with older Jewish readers, as well as those occupied and preoccupied with the current state of U.S. politics.

Adapted from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of alternative history, “The Plot Against America” was written for the screen by David Simon (“The Wire,” “Show Me a Hero,” “Treme”) and his frequent co-collaborator Edward Burns (“The Wire,” “The Corner”).

The story begins in the summer of 1940, in Weequahic, New Jersey, a Jewish working class section of Newark. That’s where young Philip Levin lives with his older brother Sandy, whom he idolizes, his parents, Herman and Bess, and his orphaned cousin, Alvin. Roth’s Weequahic was grittier, more colorful, more distinctly working class. The Weequahic in Simon and Burns’ iteration feels suburban and looks more like Brookline than Newark.

The adaptation as a standalone piece of historical fiction, as a chronicling of that era’s political climate, is compelling, nostalgic, frightening and redemptive.

But, given the arena for this review, one must ask as Jackie Mason might have: Was it Jewish enough?

Roth’s novels were so beloved because he dissected everything the wartime and post-war American Jew had anxieties about. What made “The Plot Against America” great as a novel was that he mixed his gift for perceptively and elegantly understanding the existential anxiety of American Jews with his signature style of Jewish fatalism — one that tells the reader: “We had thought that we were Americans; turns out we were just Jews.”

If you’re not Philip Roth, this is a nearly impossible tone to nail on its head. As embarrassing as it is to use this cliche, that era was not Simon and Burns’ “lived experience.” That’s what Roth drew from, and it’s what these guys lack. That’s why Weequahic feels and looks like Brookline or Wynnewood and not like a lower-middle class urban Jewish neighborhood circa 1940.

Let that not dissuade you from consuming a production that is worthwhile as history, as historical fiction and as contemporary allegory.

If there’s one thing Simon is is good with, it’s history, and he captures the pertinent era well.

War is raging in Europe and FDR’s up for reelection. The Jews listen nightly to Walter Winchell report on the Nazis’ blitzkrieg through France and their bombing of Britain.
Winchell, a Jew, also reports on the terrible fate befalling European Jews and implores the government to intervene. Winchell is the Jews’ champion; they revere him. They also believe that Roosevelt is fundamentally a decent man who will do the right thing in the end.

There’s the German American Bund — a group of German Americans sympathetic to Hitler and the Third Reich. They harass Jews in the streets and fill arenas to proselytize. There’s Father Charles Coughlin. There’s Henry Ford. They’re all looking for a man like them, a man to run against FDR and cozy up to Hitler.

They soon find their hero.

After making the first solo, nonstop, transatlantic flight from New York to Paris aboard “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Charles Lindbergh was a bona fide hero to all Americans, especially young American boys like Philip and Sandy Levin.

Conflict and family tension arises in the Levin household as Lindbergh becomes the darling of the isolationist, anti-Semitic right and the Republican nominee for President. He’ll defeat the man they derisively call Franklin Delano Rosenberg, a man they believe to be a puppet to powerful Jewish names like Baruch, Frankfurter and Morgenthau.

Lindbergh says little on the campaign trail, except that he pledges to keep America out of the war. Played by Ben Cole, he is more discussed than actually seen, mirroring the way Roth treated the character in the novel.

As his campaign goes on, Lindbergh’s overtly anti-Jewish rhetoric lessens, and he adopts an even more insidious strategy: He starts to recruit them to his cause.

A prominent local rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, who is played by John Turturro, truly one of the great actors of our time, is curiously recruited as a Lindbergh surrogate.

Weequahic’s Jews are perplexed but cousin Alvin reconciles the paradox astutely and hauntingly: “He’s there to kosherize Lindbergh for the Jews.”

The kosherizing process never quite takes and the Jews generally look at Bengelsdorf as a kapo. But Bess’s sister Evelyn, Philip and Sandy’s aunt played by Winona Ryder, soon falls into a serious romantic relationship with Bengelsdorf, throwing the stridently anti-Lindbergh, anti-Bengelsdorf Levin family into disarray.

Things are made worse when it’s discovered that older brother Sandy, a talented artist, has never forsaken his hero worship of Lindbergh and that he’s been secreting a cache of pencil-drawn Lindbergh portraits under his bed. Aunt Evelyn recruits Sandy to be part of newly created group of youth scouts, eerily reminiscent of Hitler Youth, in support of the newly elected President Lindberg and his policies to put America first and keep it there.

With the urging of Bengelsdorf and his aunt Evelyn, Sandy is sent to live on a family farm in rural Kentucky as a part of Lindbergh’s hilariously named “Just Folks” program, which aims to deurbanize Jews, to make them more white-bread American.

Terrifyingly, Sandy takes to it. He returns home to Newark from Kentucky and calls his parents backward “Ghetto Jews.”

Lindbergh’s plan is working … but whose plan is it really? And how far behind the scenes are Hitler and the Nazi apparatus lurking behind this new isolationist, bizarrely nationalist American government?

You’ll have to watch to find out. I’ll say this: The book ends without it being clear to what extent Hitler had been pulling the strings the entire time. Whether Simon and Burns take any artistic license with this will make for compelling chatter on HBO’s accompanying podcast.

Here are a couple things that can be said more confidently. Turturro is fantastic as always as the turncoat rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf; Ryder is absolutely pitch perfect in her portrayal of Evelyn — she’s exactly what I saw and heard in my mind when I originally read Roth’s novel.

Zoe Kazan is adorable in nearly all she does, but adorable isn’t the right look or tone for Bess, the matriarch of the Levin household. There’s a disconnect between the girlish Kazan and the war-era mother of adolescents she’s supposed to be playing. I want to buy it, but I can’t.

Morgan Spector, as the father, Herman Levin, is mostly perfect, though just a tad over-the-top at times, while Anthony Boyle as cousin Alvin is a flawed, principled character you’ll find yourself rooting for.

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