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The Alternate History Of 'The Plot Against America' Comes To HBO


What would happen if America elected a charismatic celebrity as president and that president encouraged bigots to act openly against a minority group? That is the question at the heart of a new limited HBO series that debuts tonight. It's called "The Plot Against America." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: HBO's "The Plot Against America" is the TV equivalent of watching a frog sit in slowly heating water. It centers on the Levins, a working-class Jewish family in 1940s Newark. Patriarch Herman Levin, played by Morgan Spector, listens to a radio broadcast and can't believe that his fellow Americans won't resist aviator Charles Lindbergh's presidential candidacy.


ZOE KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) What if Lindbergh does win?

MORGAN SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) Everyone sees what he is. Everyone I talk to knows that he's just...

DAVID KRUMHOLTZ: (As Monty) Who do you talk to? We live in Newark in Jersey in the Jewish section of town.

SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) Not just Jews - Italians, Negroes, other people - you ask them. They see this schmuck for what he is.

KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) Listen to your brother. Lindbergh is a hero. To most people in this country, there's never been a bigger hero in their lifetime.

DEGGANS: Indeed, Lindbergh became one of America's biggest heroes in 1927 when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. But Lindbergh was also a supporter of Nazi Germany, and he opposed America's intervention in World War II. HBO's miniseries, based on Philip Roth's 2004 novel, asks what might have happened if Lindbergh ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the American presidency in 1940 and won.

For the Levins, the result is a country that slowly grows more hostile to Jewish people, leaving them unsure whether to flee to Canada or to stay and fight the hate. Radio journalist Walter Winchell, portrayed as the most prominent Jewish opponent of Lindbergh, reports on how the president allows U.S. companies to sell materiel to the Nazis.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Walter Winchell) Washington, it seems our president's embargo on all materiel to warring nations has a loophole that allows U.S. interior secretary and raving Jew-baiter Henry Ford, along with other rogue industrialists, to quietly sell petroleum, vehicles and even munition to the Nazis. So Mr. and Mrs. America, those bombs falling in London are stamped made in the U.S. of A.

DEGGANS: The Levins get kicked out of a hotel in Washington, D.C., during a family vacation.


SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) This officer knows why we were evicted. He knows. The manager knows.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think you ought to listen to your wife, Levin. Leave the premises before you wear out my patience.

DEGGANS: And Herman's wife Bess, played by Zoe Kazan, is left with a dispiriting conclusion.


KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) Like it or not, Lindbergh is teaching us what it means to be Jews. We only think we're Americans.

SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) No. They think we only think we're Americans. Then they call us others. They're the others.

DEGGANS: Roth's story becomes a meticulously detailed and gorgeously directed miniseries, crafted by "The Wire's" David Simon and his longtime creative partner Ed Burns.

Americans love stories about World War II. It's a war where the U.S. was unambiguously the good guy. But Roth's story in this miniseries asks, what would've happened if America chose differently? This alternative history's parallels with modern times are inescapable. For example, Lindbergh supports the noninterventionist America First Committee, a name which mirrors the slogan of a certain current president.

There's so much to love here, from John Turturro's layered portrayal of a rabbi who tries to convince Americans that Lindbergh is not anti-Semitic to Simon's lovingly authentic rendering of a Jewish family that resonates with moments from his own life. But the heart of "The Plot Against America" is its nightmare vision of how quickly U.S. democracy can turn to something darker, slowed only by those brave enough to insist that, yes, in fact, America is their country, too.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF YACHT SONG, "MATTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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