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The Plot Against America's alternate history gets very real in HBO's Philip Roth adaptation
In 2004, novelist Philip Roth released The Plot Against America, a narrative that explored the “what if” scenario of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt for the U.S. presidency in 1940. Just why that would potentially be terrifying to posit is that, while Lindbergh was primarily known as a national hero for achieving the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, he was also later in life an avowed anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler’s Third Reich movement.
Well received at the time as an alternative-history cautionary tale, it has since become a far more sobering exploration of the populist extremism happening in the current United States, but also around the world.
Seeing the narrative in a new light is also the journey that was necessary for journalist and showrunner David Simon to take for him to adapt the novel into the upcoming HBO miniseries starring John Turturro, Winona Ryder, Anthony Boyle, and Zoe Kazan. Simon and his cast presented footage from the series at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena today and explained how this speculative fiction is now more cogent than ever.
“I think it’s fairly apparent that the political paradigm, in terms of [current] populism and nationalism and fear of the other, is the reason this got made,” David Simon said of the impetuous of their production. “Someone actually came to me with the book after Obama’s re-election, and I said I enjoyed the novel but it doesn't seem to be relevant to our political moment.
"How wrong was I?” he said starkly. “The reason to do this is that the pieces are incredibly relevant and why we’re here.”
The narrative in the book and miniseries is from the perspective of the Levins, a World War II-era working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. As Lindbergh’s political campaign sweeps the nation, the various members of the family are uniquely propelled to either support or decry the potential candidate.
While most Americans are only aware of Lindbergh as an aviation icon, Simon said he was less interested in shining a light on his very real extremist views than he was in exploring "what creates a Lindbergh."
In setting context for that approach, Simon explains, “I met with Roth one time before he passed away. He had a moment of clarity and caution about the book. He said Lindbergh was a hero and brought astounding charisma and there was a genuine fear he would run. And that he was anti-Semitic and was enamored of National Socialist Party. But then, he also got into a plane and did something at great personal risk. America had a hard time reconciling that. I think what’s scary is Roth imagined him as a genuine American hero.”
To back that up, Simon told a story about his own Jewish father, as a child, attending Lindbergh’s ticker tape parade in New York.
“Ten years later, my father was learning to loathe Lindbergh," Simon said. "And my point is, you don’t even need to be an American hero to sway national political issues.”
Asked about the narrative exploration of Lindbergh’s views that may recast him historically with modern viewers, Simon said the miniseries follows the book, which was heavily inspired by Lindbergh’s own diaries that were explicit about his nationalist views.
“He didn’t become president, but his feelings on Jewish influence are pretty open," Simon explained.
While the miniseries is very much an alternate history unfolding, the reality of the issues and sentiments of the time are very much woven into the fabric of the narrative. Actor John Turturro, who plays conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a provocative member of Lindbergh’s theoretical administration, said, “When you think of the country in World War II, 80 percent of the country were isolationists. The gates to immigration closed in 1924, and there were quotas for every country.”
The actor said the cast couldn’t help but feel the weight of the story they were telling every day. “When dealing with a great writer, they bring up uncomfortable things within you. I think we were realizing these things that happened, always happen and will always happen. ... It brings up things in all of us. There was something uncomfortable [about it], and I have to credit Roth and David [Simon].”
Asked why Roth remains so admired, Simon said it was because the author was relentless about telling the truth, sometimes at a very personal cost.
“The truth is uncomfortable, and a lot of authors duck. His capacity for self-examination is unsurpassed in modern American literature,” Simon asserted. “It’s not easy to adapt him. So much writing is interior. But this was the one that was plot-heavy, and he did it with great care. I thought we had a lot to work with in making it a miniseries."
And while the book and the miniseries focus on anti-Semitism specifically, Simon was adamant that it would be a huge mistake to discount this as just a Jewish story, instead of an examination of the fear of the other down the line: immigrants, Muslims, and people of color.
“It’s about the savagery to label some people less American," he said. "The book goes through a very specific moment against Jews, which can be applied to everyone. Just step back and take the greater spirit.”
The Plot Against America miniseries will run for six episodes and debuts Monday, March 16, at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.