The Plot Against America Series

HBO presented a Television Critics Association panel on their miniseries The Plot Against America, adapted from Philip Roth’s book. Writer and executive producer David Simon was on a panel with cast members Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Winona Ryder, Anthony Boyle and John Turturro. The book and the show tell a story of a world in which Charles Lindbergh ran against FDR and got elected President of the United States in 1940. 

The story deals with anti-Semitism in World War II, as a different American President, and one with anti-Semitic leanings, alters the course of history.

Charles Lindbergh could have been a Donald Trump figure

David Simon made it clear that The Plot Against America is not a Charles Lindbergh story. It does, however, explore the culture that could elevate him to a leader. Simon suggested the factors are similar to those that turned real estate tycoon and reality TV host Donald Trump into a legitimate presidential candidate. 

“The verdict on Lindberg is no reason to do a six part miniseries,” Simon said. “It’s out there. I’m more interested in the dynamic of what creates a Lindbergh and how that can play upon our political institutions.”

Simon met Roth before he passed away 2018. He shared Roth’s perspective on the complexities of Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was beloved for his accomplishment of making the first transatlantic flight, and the sympathy for the kidnapping of his infant child.

“He had one moment of clarity and caution about the book he’d written,” Simon said. “He said Lindbergh really was a hero. He really was heroic. He brought astounding charisma to the moment he found himself. There was a genuine fear he would be nominated in 1940 to run against Roosevelt. He was anti-semitic and he was very enamored of fascism and of the national socialist movement in Germany. So there was a real threat there. On the other hand, he got in a little plane and did something nobody thought could be done, at great personal risk.”

Simon suggested that in the ‘40s, Americans had difficulty reconciling the positive and negative in a single person. Simon worries that today, people don’t even try and just ignore the negative if the positive supports their beliefs.

“Reconciling two things, Americans had a hard time with that for many years,” Simon said. “I don’t think we even require it anymore, to slip into some of our most fundamental fears and prejudices and resentments in order to subevert out own politics. What’s scariest, Roth really imagined a genuine American hero. You didn’t even need the dynamic of a great American hero in order to sway our political foundations which is kind of unnerving to me.”

This is a cautionary tale

Retellings of historical events can serve as examples for modern day audiences to avoid old mistakes, or fix injustices of the past. Historical fiction can do the same by demonstrating how bad things could have gotten. 

Zoe Kazan has a unique perspective on that. Her grandfather Elia Kazan was part of another dangerous phase of American history. He named names of alleged communists during Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings. A reporter asked if The Plot Against America made her reflect on her grandfather’s actions, and she reflected on how future generations can address the past.

“My grandfather did an adaptation of a book by John Steinbeck called East of Eden,” Kazan said. “In that book there is a discussion of a Hebrew word in translation in the Cain and Abel story. The word is timshel. Steinbek translates it as thou mayest. The question at hand is that God says to Cain in some translations, you can triumph over si, but it’s in the hands of the next generation. The reason Steinbeck put that in his book about the foundation of the west in this country is that it’s also about America choosing to recognize who they have been. Cain did kill his brother, but they may choose a different future for themselves. Those were the things that were on my mind. It was a profound experience for me, personally, politically, artistically.”

News could be just as constant in the ‘40s as in the social media age

Morgan Spector plays Herman Levin, patriarch of the Levin family. Today, he might be glued to Twitter responding to Trump tweets, or 24 hour news. The lack of technology doesn’t make Levin any less fired up.

“The person who is sort of perpetually angry and digesting the news in this way that constantly stimulates his sense of injustice and rage, I found that quite easy to relate to in our present moment,” Spector said. “I think there was a bit of a challenge just in putting a character on screen for six episodes. I don’t think an audience has much appetite for someone who’s railing at them for six hours. I don’t think I consciously tried to bring a 21st century sensibility to this character.”

Some things never change

John Turturro plays Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf in The Plot Against America. For him, the story is indicative of the cyclical nature of human history. Even before the fiction occurs, the real historical setting was similar to the immigration and “fine people on both sides” issues of today.

“The gates to immigration were closed in 1924 and there were quotas for every country,” Turturro said. “My father was in the middle of that. I think when you’re dealing with a great writer, it brings up really uncomfortable things within you. The idea that people collaborate or try to mediate or find middle ground, sometimes there isn’t middle ground. I think we’re realizing that these things that happened always happened and will always happen. I definitely think it brings up things in all of us. Even when we were doing scenes as a family, there was something uncomfortable about it.”

This is why David Simon chose to adapt The Plot Against America

Simon concurs that The Plot Against America is not just an adaptation of a book that was written some time ago. It has relevance to 2020.

“I will say I think it would be a mistake to say that what we did is singular to Roth or his experience,” Simon said. “He wrote a book that was politically sensate whether or not the issue was anti-semitism or persecution of Jews in 1940. If you’re taking it literally, there’s not much point in us doing that although anti-semitism is resurgent. The savagery that’s being shown, great effort is being made to define people as less American which is disastrous for what the American republic has to be. The book goes for this very specific historical moment and specific threat against Jews to being very allegorical to our time.”

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