Review: “The Plot Against America”, the complete series

It would be ideal if prior to viewing HBO’s six part adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history The Plot Against America, viewers had read the best selling novel. However, given our current political reality, some may say that the possibility of a hypothetical take over of the American presidency by a menacing anti democratic reactionary force, is arguably a present reality.

The HBO mini series entitled The Plot Against America boasts a stellar cast: The six part series was written and produced by David Simon (The Wire, Homicide) and Ed Burns (The Wire, The Corner) and the edgy, moody energy — along with a keen eye for period detail and character development — present in their previous collaborations is on full display in The Plot Against America.

The superb cast is led by Morgan Spector as the Levin family patriarch Herman, whose fear of a possible Charles Lindbergh candidacy for his family and the Jewish populace as the 1940 election approaches, becomes increasingly desperate and strident.

Rounding out the cast is Zoe Kazan as Herman’s wife Elizabeth, Winona Ryder as Elizabeth’s scandalously unwed sister Evelyn, John Turturro as the Lindberg supporting Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, and Ben Cole as the suspiciously enigmatic aviator cum presidential candidate Charles Lindbergh.

Of special note are young actors Azhy Robertson as young Phillip Levin and Caleb Malis as his older artistically inclined brother Sandy. Author Philip Roth’s use of a family identical to his own – different only in surname – in composition, family dynamics, sibling interests and tensions, and geographical residence gives the evolving sibling relationships presented on screen a deeper authorial resonance.

Episodes 1 & 2

Much of the story line in the first two episodes is seen from the eyes of the two Levin brothers. Phillip is quiet and clearly worships his parents, especially his father Herman, as totemic figures; meanwhile the older preteen Sandy harbors a hidden idolatry and fixation upon Charles Lindbergh, who is not only reviled by his father but by everyone in his tight family/neighborhood community. Viewers sense that teen Sandy’s idee fixe upon Lindbergh will, in coming episodes, rend his relationship with his father, his Levin family, and possibly within the larger Jewish community. 

As of this writing, the first two episodes of The Plot Against America have aired. Both episodes have effectively created an incredibly realistic mise en scene highlighted by spot-on visual detail of early 1940s urban ethic neighborhood life, culture, styles, and its social/political milieu.

However, the outstanding feature of the first two episodes is the film’s steady – critics may say too slow – development of the increasing fear and despair of a man, a family, a neighborhood, and of an ethnic group of people. As Lindbergh rises in the polls and in the esteem of the surrounding goy neighborhoods, especially within the nearby “German Town”, the Jewish residents of this Weequahic/Newark ethnic enclave become increasingly addled by incomprehension and impotence.

As the election drew nearer, almost all the Weequahic Jews realized that Franklin Roosevelt could lose to someone they perceived as not only a celebrity cipher but Nazi sympathizer who – along with his growing legion of goy supporters – was merely camouflaging an animus towards American Jewry.

In closing, The Plot Against America has, in the first two episodes, been quietly and steadily building towards a combustible moment. That moment punctuated episode 2 and if the series aligns with the novel, the pacing and inevitable danger for the Levin family and their Jewish community will escalate considerably. This promises a marked increase in the dramatic pacing and tension that characterized the first two episodes of the fascinating mini series.

I cannot wait.

Episode 3

In my review of E1 and E2 of HBO’s film adaptation of Philip Roth’s alternative history novel The Plot Against America, I noted that the culminating event of E2, the surprise defeat of incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt and the elevation of the very slippery – and among New Jersey’s Jews, arguably anti-Semitic and unarguably pro German – Charles A. Lindbergh to the presidency would shift the six part series into a higher narrative gear.

I was not wrong.

As the opening credits for E3 rolled, the camera showed key protagonist Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his friend Shepsie Tirchwell (Michael Kostroff) as part of a clean up crew attempting to remove the anti-Semitic graffiti on headstones in a Jewish cemetery. Though the dialogue in the scene was sparse – Herman cursing Lindbergh as he angrily tried to scrub off the black painted hate from the Jewish headstones – the narrative proclamation was clear: The election of Charles A. Lindbergh signaled to Jew haters that All-Gloves-Were-Off.

If that image wasn’t convincing, as E3 started, newsreel images showed President Lindbergh visiting Germany and sitting next to Hitler as the men signed a “Non Aggression Pact” a development that, as Herman growled, “Throws England to the wolves.” Left unsaid in the film, but not unthought by this viewer, was that the image of an American President sitting next to the Nazi Fuhrer pretty much painted a huge bullseye upon American Jewry.

E3 continued several ancillary story lines: Herman’s young adult nephew Alvin, who in E2 leaves the US and joins the Canadian Army to fight Nazi’s, completes his training and is shipped off to England awaiting combat assignment.

Herman’s sister in law Evelyn has immersed herself into the world of her boyfriend Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who is now a Lindbergh administration member and charged with heading a youth oriented program to “voluntarily” move young urban Jewish children into the [Goy and conservative] heartland in a federal attempt to “Americanize” the children. Herman and most of the other Jewish parents see this program as a cynical, blatant, and monstrous attempt to de-racinate Jewish youth and cleave these children from their “Un-American” parents.

However, the pivotal event in E3 was the Levin’s decision to go ahead with their planned family trip to Washington D.C. to see the national monuments. In this episode – as it was in the Roth novel – this event is a key moment in the movie’s developing narrative arc, and is, in this episode, when both Levins realized that the danger that the Lindbergh presidency represented to American Jewry was real and that that message had been inculcated and heartily embraced by Lindbergh’s ardent Goy supporters.

This particular scene at the Washington D.C. hotel is the most effectively disturbing and soul chilling premonitory moment in the series so far.

In the first two episodes, the primary criticism of The Plot Against American has been that the series lacks narrative tension and the pacing of the first two episodes was too slow, and for some, desultory. Though I have not entirely shared this critical perspective, I do have to affirm that the series has not created the kind of tension and suspense that one would expect in a series about a President and a country aligning itself with Adolf Hitler, one of history’s most vile and monstrous despots.

At the end of The Plot Against America’s E3, I am hoping that the series continues the masterful mise en scene so vividly present in the initial three episodes. I also hope that the bravura dramatic presentation of the hotel scene at the end of E3, moves the series away from the existential fear of evil, into the horrific and very real impact that race/ethic based national authoritarians in high office can, though words, deeds, and winks of a racist eye, inflict upon a people and a country. 

Episode 4

Last week’s third episode of the six part miniseries The Plot Against America ended with a disturbing development that resulted in the Levin family getting kicked out of a Washington hotel, for no stated reason other than they had to leave. But, for viewers, the message was clear: In an America with Charles Lindbergh as president, Jews were no longer allowed in all public places. That ending scene was powerful in its structure and portended dark and dangerous times for the Levin’s – and American Jewry –  with the advent of the pro Nazi Lindbergh presidential administration.

As I have previously observed in the first three episodes of this carefully constructed six part series, the film makers utilized an increasingly chiaroscuro mise en scene that signaled the darkness and potential danger of an approaching Lindbergh presidency for the Jewish protagonists. With each successive episode, the cinematography – the lighting, decor, props, shot framing, and camera work – furthered this visual prophesy of increasing danger and peril for the Levin family in a post FDR, Lindbergh America.

E4 continued the stories of the extended Levin family and their family and friends. The gravesite Kaddish of Bess Levin’s (Zoe Kazan) mother opened the episode, and with the passing of their bubee, the implication was that a particular way of the Jewish immigrant American experience had also come to end.

Next, Alvin Levin (Anthony Boyle), the nephew of Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), returned to the USA after suffering the loss of his foot in a combat explosion with the Nazis during his time with the British Army. Alvin was clearly suffering post traumatic stress and appeared adrift and disillusioned.

Capping off Herman’s increasing frustration and impotence against the rising Lindbergh tide, Herman’s brother Monty (David Krumholtz), who in earlier episodes shared Herman’s antipathy toward Lindbergh, was now longer hostile to the new Nazi appeasing President. His change of heart resided in the facts that his business was booming and from Monty’s perspective, Alvin’s tragedy was entirely avoidable and of his own making for not, as Lindbergh said, staying out of the war.

In this latest episode, the rifts between the members of the Levin family worsened: The older Levin son Sandy (Caleb Malis), sunk deeper into the typical teen rebellion against his parents, primarily manifested in his increasing fascination and involvement in the “American-ization” efforts of President Lindbergh and Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro). Sandy’s typically surly teen rebellion centered upon his embrace of President Lindbergh, which imperiled not only his relationship with his father, but also with his entire family and their close knit Jewish community.

Thus Sandy dove deeper into the collaborationist orbit of his Aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and her fiancee Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Sandy returned from his Kentucky farming trip suffused with what he believed was a broader and truer sense of “Americanism” vis-a-vis his benighted parochial “ghetto Jew” parents.

The unavoidable rift between Herman and Bess Levin with sister-in-law Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf exploded when Evelyn, without consulting Herman and Bess, invited their son Sandy to attend a Lindbergh state dinner honoring German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Herman and Bess emphatically refused to allow Sandy to attend, igniting a Cronus-Uranus like father-son explosion that was one of the most powerful – and heartbreaking – scenes in the series to date.

E4 culminated with further hints that for the Levin’s and American Jewry, the worse was yet to come. After the perceived “success” of voluntary youth oriented “Just Folks” campaign which was the source of so much bad blood between Herman and Sandy Levin, Rabbi Bengelsdorf was now heading a new program that would “voluntarily” relocate all American Jews, particularly those who resided on the eastern seaboard, into the vast, Goy populated interior of the country.

Viewers did not have to stretch their imaginations too far to sense that these proposed “camps” will be similar to the internment camps like Manzanar that imprisoned American Japanese, or given the input of Nazi Germany and monsters like Von Ribbentrop, camps of an even more horrific purpose.

A new and equally disturbing story line in E4 was the presence of the FBI, Lindbergh’s FBI, as agents began to investigate Alvin’s return to the US and probe into the real story behind the loss of his leg. Subsequently, an FBI agent accosted young Phillip as he walked home from school and questioned him about his uncle, then, later, began to tail Herman Levin. These sinister surveillance developments suggested the real likelihood of an intrusive police state, particularly for outspoken Jews like Herman Levin.

However, the most disturbing scene in E4 – and the one that gave me a nightmare last night – was the presentation of the Lindbergh – Von Ribbentrop official White House state dinner, which, by the way, was attended by only two Jews, Evelyn Finkel and Rabbi Bengelsdorf. The cinematic image of the two flags, that of the United States and that of Nazi Germany, side by side, evoked a visceral feeling of repulsion and horror in me as a viewer. My dad and uncles on both sides of my family fought and bled to prevent exactly this kind of soiree anywhere in 1940’s America, especially in the White House.

But one more emotional revulsion awaited viewers: The take away scene from the nightmarish Lindbergh-Ribbentrop state dinner was when Evelyn accepted the invitation to dance from Nazi Joachim Von Ribbentrop. Again, I recoiled in horror at this scene. However, I also felt an overwhelming sense of shame and horror for the debilitating parochialism of poor Evelyn. Rabbi Bengelsdorf, whose collaboration with the enemies of his people seemed to know no bounds, was fair game for the disgusted viewer. However, Evelyn, a women who is unworldly and whose apparent goal was to have a husband and some worthy purpose in her stilted life, evoked in me only a sense of pity and shame.

As E4 ended, a confluence of forces, external and internal, began to overwhelm the Levin family, American Jewry, and the very nature of the American republic as The Plot Against America approached the fall and winter of 1941.

Episode 5

As HBO’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s best selling 2004 alternative history novel The Plot Against America entered its final two episodes, the question was: Will the level of real danger for the protagonists Levin family, and by extension, American Jewry, continue to escalate and if so, how?

This review of the penultimate episode will take a slightly different approach compared to its previous format: Readers/viewers are likely familiar with the primary characters and so we will forego the actor identification protocols and the detailed presentation of the evolving character/plot story lines.

For this Episode Five (E5) review, the focus will be upon the themes that the series has previously developed and how E5 built upon those themes and set up the story and the viewers for the climatic episode next week.

Theme: Leadership Makes a Difference

The HBO series rests, as did its inspirational novel, firmly upon the contention that leadership, particularly in national crises and clearly in societal relations and national comity, makes a difference. Clearly, history would have been different if Charles Lindbergh, and not Franklin Roosevelt, had been President during World War II, one of the greatest crises in our nation’s history.

The question of how a Lindbergh administration could differ from a Roosevelt presidency has been the key narrative challenge for this HBO series. In the first four episodes, The Plot Against America has been successful in diligently and incrementally showing how a President Lindbergh vis a vis a President Roosevelt could have radically and disastrously resulted in different consequences for our nation and its inhabitants, particularly American Jewry. Each episode has carefully built upon the steady presentation, through cinematography, story, and character, of ever increasing danger for the Levin’s and their Jewish family and neighbors.

In E5, a disturbing avalanche of events overwhelmed the Levins: Due to the blind cupidity of Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, the patently involuntary nature of the Rabbi’s proposed voluntary “Homestead” program was shown to be a fraud. Bengelsdorf was played and used by President Lindbergh, the Congress, and the planning committee headed by virulently anti Semitic Henry Ford, to be nothing less than the forced relocation of East Coast Jews.

As the episode, Rabbi Bengelsdorf finally became aware that when the decisions were made, he was merely a useful idiot. Unfortunately, his naivete  and slavish Vichy like collaboration with the Lindbergh administration had disastrous consequences for the Levin’s. Because of his need to please and be accepted by his imagined Goy friends and develop deracination measures for all of American Jewry, the Levin’s and thousands of other American Jews received notice that they were, like the West Coast Japanese Americans, being involuntarily interned.

Democratic Structures and Norms are Fragile

If viewers in 2020 Trump America needed any further confirmation that democratic structures and norms are fragile, then The Plot Against America, particularly in E5, hammered that reality home.

Herman’s occupational status, livelihood, place of residency, and even physical safety were all imperiled. He and his family continued to be dogged by the FBI, his employer caved to the FBI and pegged Herman for involuntary transfer to Kentucky, and at a political rally for famous radio commentator Walter Winchell’s nascent campaign for President in 1944, Herman and the other largely Jewish attendees, were brutally attacked by a swarm of American Nazi’s. All this took place while the local police stood by and did nothing. It was not an huge inference leap for viewers to see the resemblance of Walter Winchell Nazi riot in a fictional 1942 to Charlottesville, VA in 2017.

Societal Stress Trends Downward 

Though previous episodes have given escalating glimpses into how Lindbergh’s election created increasing stress for all the Levin’s from Herman on down, E5 drove home how both mother Bess and youngest son Philip were near emotional and psychological breaking points.

While Herman stubbornly contended that as an American citizen, he had constitutional rights to fight the wave of authoritarian dictates overwhelming his home and family, Bess had none of this. Bess clearly interpreted the changed reality: They were Jews, they had no rights, the US was no longer their country, and they had to leave the country for Canada. Period. The scenes when Bess confronted Herman with these brutal realities were some of the most compelling moments in E5.

But it was E5’s focus on the impact of these events on young Philip that was most heartbreaking. When The Plot Against America began, Philip was a happy contented child, completely at ease and happy with his Jewish family, his Jewish neighborhood, and with his family’s place in the US. However, by E5, Philip was a terrified, scared, and emotionally damaged child.

Philip was witness to the destruction of every aspect and fiber of his idyllic childhood: He had seen his father beaten down both mentally and physically, his mother’s tranquil, nurturing, and equable temperament destroyed, his neighborhood and friends broken apart and some, like his own family, forced against their will to move to Kentucky.

Adding more insult and injury to Philip’s overwhelmed child psyche, his brother Sandy continued to embrace President Lindbergh and his administration’s blatantly racist and unconstitutional relocation program. All this combined to destroy his idyllic childhood, family life, home, and warm close knit neighborhood. It was heartbreaking to see all this rain upon a small child and completely obliterate his sense of security and self, protection and community.

As E5 ended, I am very curious as to how writers and producers David Simon and Ed Burns will resolve this tale of national, familial, and community destruction and how closely the HBO series hews to the dizzying resolution found in the ending of Philip Roth’s chilling novel. 

Episode 6

As HBO’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s best selling 2004 alternative history novel The Plot Against America concluded, the question remained: How closely would the final episode of this six part series hew to the complex and dramatic ending of the Philip Roth novel?

Unlike the five previous reviews, a detailed presentation of the plot lines and events of Episode Six (E6) will not be provided. If readers want to know how E6 ended, I strongly suggest that you watch the final show without prior knowledge of this finale episode.

E6 confirmed that HBO’s The Plot Against America was, in toto, a carefully crafted, superbly filmed nightmare of an America gone mad, at possibly the worst possible time in the 20th Century. Central to the power of the drama was the cinematic envisioning of how the election of the wrong man as president at the wrong time in history, unleashed the subterranean bigotry and racism that has, unfortunately, always been lurking within our national experience. In both the book and this HBO series, the hypothetical shift in 1940 from a President Franklin Roosevelt to a President Charles Lindbergh led to an aberrant administration and political environment, capable of forming an alliance with the pestilential despicable scourge of 1930’s and 1940’s Nazi Germany.

To be sure, the elevating danger presented in episodes 1-5, culminated in E6. Last night’s finale was filled with the anguish of American Jewry as the final result of the Lindbergh presidency’s bargain with the Nazi Devil was revealed: A violent and blatantly racist putsch against both American Jewry and any and all political opponents of the fictional President Lindbergh.

For this review, I will only describe two particular scenes from E6 that provided a glimpse into the production’s culminating bravura cinematic arc of danger and national peril.

First, as the rioting and overt violence against Jews escalated into a declaration of oppressive national martial law, Bess Levin (Zoe Kazan), huddled with her children in their darkened house, received a phone call from young Seldon Wishnow (Jacob Laval), who, along with his mother, was forcibly relocated to Kentucky. Previous calls with Seldon had revealed that the child, who was emotionally and physically fragile and very atypical, was in constant fear in Kentucky, with no friends or community backup and he often spent long stretches alone at home, waiting for his mother to return from work.

On this particular call, as anti Semitic rioting was sweeping the country, Bess was trying to calm Seldon down but the child instinctively knew something was terribly wrong with his mother. So Bess, with lights dimmed, her neighborhood darkened, and multiple gunshots echoing from their now extremely dangerous street, did everything she could to soothe Sheldon. The camera work and cinematic mise en scene in this sequence, the visual and auditory presentation of a terrified but strong and maternal Bess doing everything she can do to provide love and familial solace to the solitary child, along with the quivering and frightened-to-death voice of that terrified, desperate child who knew instinctively that his mother was dead, was too much for me. I could not hold back the tears.

This particular scene, so incredibly filmed, choreographed, and acted, will forever haunt me.

The second unforgettable scene directly followed the Bess-Seldon phone call. Bess, despite her entreaties to soothe and reassure Seldon, knew that Seldon’s mother was dead so she asked her husband Herman (Morgan Spector) and their older son Sandy (Caleb Malis) – who, by the way, had finally been disabused of his two year rebellious infatuation with President Charles Lindbergh – to drive to Kentucky to rescue the boy. Both father and son agreed and took off on the long car journey. Because the country was under martial law, this automobile journey was fraught with danger for father and son. But, when they finally made it to Kentucky, they found Seldon safe with the farm family whom hosted Sandy during his summer in Kentucky.

Before the Herman leaves with both boys, the farmer informed Herman and Sandy that Seldon’s mother was indeed dead, killed when the local Ku Klux Klan firebombed her car as she was driving home. Seldon truly was all alone and in danger. Thus, Herman and Sandy took Seldon and started their long journey back to New Jersey.

However, on their return journey through Kentucky and the south, they were constantly met with danger and possible death at the hands of the region’s racists run amok. At one time, they actually had to drive through a Klan rally. The tension and imminent danger presented on their return journey, never ceased until they got back to their driveway in New Jersey.

Again the cinematic pace and tension present in Herman’s and Sandy’s rescue Seldon mission created an elevated sense of fear and very real danger that could have, at any given moment, resulted in sudden, violent death for all three at the hands of remorseless and racist killers. That tension was cinematically palpable. As a viewer, I was absolutely on the edge of my seat until Herman, Sandy, and young Seldon got back in the Levin household in New Jersey.

In closing, to answer the question of how closely the final episode of this six part series hewed to the complex and dramatic ending of the Philip Roth novel, the answer is mixed; The melange of rumors and conspiracy theories within the ending of the series replicated the ending of the Philip Roth novel.

Also, in the novel there was a clear winner in the 1942 special election, whereas the final episode of the mini-series ended with no declared winner in that presidential election, with disturbing visual implications that the race was not only close but overt chicanery impacted the undisclosed outcome.

Perhaps the ambiguity at the end of the E6 signaled that there may be second season planned for this superb HBO production. My own personal take away was that part of the filmmaker’s intention was to suggest a parallel from the fictional events portrayed to what’s happening in America now and could happen again in November 2020.

In closing, the sixth and final episode of The Plot Against America offered a disturbing and powerful ending to a superbly realized six part HBO”s mini-series adaptation of Philip Roth’s best selling and chilling novel of the same title.

The Plot Against America

Written and Produced by David Simon and Ed Burns

Directed by Thomas Schlamme and Minkie Spiro

Available on HBO and its affiliated channels

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