The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America
Created by David Simon and Ed Burns
Starring Winona Ryder, Anthony Boyle, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Michael Kostroff, David Krumholtz, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, Jacob Laval and John Turturro

by Lewis Church

Alternative history is always intended to bring the present into sharper relief. What if Hitler had got into art school? What if the North lost the American Civil War? What if there was an earlier thaw, a deviant election or that bullet hit three inches to the left? These are the tiny hypotheticals that could have shifted the trajectory of history, triggering strings of cause and effect that leave us not where we are but someplace new, strange, or bizarre. Alternative histories are about reimagining narratives that are taught as though it could never have been any different.

It’s easy to see why then that alternative histories are having a bit of a moment right now. All you have to do is look at the endless memes about this being the ‘darkest timeline’ to see it in action. It’s become our unofficial hobby to imagine our own. What if Trump lost to Hilary Clinton? Would we be feeling better? What if the country we live in had locked down earlier, or more decisively? What if competent people were in control? The sense of living through history is palpable right now, and ‘what if?’ can be a powerful escape. Against this backdrop, David Simon’s latest mini-series The Plot Against America is an infinitely timely release.

Based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, the premise behind it is simple. In this timeline Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, runs against President Roosevelt in 1940 and wins. The change is as simple as that: a different candidate and a different election result. But the difference it makes to late twentieth-century history is profound. Lindbergh is a Republican President who is anti-war and implicitly pro-Nazi (as he was in real life), and under his fictional leadership America doesn’t enter WWII in 1941. Instead, throughout the series, the persecution of Jews in the US begins to ramp up in horrific echoes of Europe in the 1930s.

The way this transpires is a queasy vision of what it looks like to live within encroaching fascism. As viewers, we see it through the lens of a single Jewish family in Newark, NJ – a father, mother, two boys and their older cousin. Herman, the father, sees the danger from the off and deludes himself that other Americans will not fall for the race-baiting and hate. He sits by his radio, in a 1930s equivalent of rage-scrolling Twitter, shouting at the news and disbelieving that his country could degenerate so far. The chillingly plausible events of the series demonstrate how wrong he is.

The journey of Herman is contrasted against Alvin, the cousin, who, adrift and angry, joins up with the Canadian army to go do something real. Without spoiling his story, his experiences and return are a pitch-perfect sketch of the process of disillusionment. His is the realisation that heroism is just a story we tell ourselves. Similarly, the two young boys, Sandy and Phillip, watch with horror and disbelief as the world turns against them for simply what they are, whilst their mother (played with incredible depth by Zoe Kazan) remains shrewd, realistic and determined to endure. John Turturro and Winona Ryder appear as Lindbergh apologists, deluded that they will be safe if they just go along with the new regime. The entire cast are excellent, believable and nuanced, and their performances add depth to the parable that this is.

For like his work on The Wire, Treme and The Deuce, Simon’s mini-series is forensic in its unpicking of seemingly monolithic systems. It focuses on the experience of everyday people in the midst of a dysfunctional society, buffeted by the vast tides of public opinion. We see history at street level, the daily bread and butter of prejudice and scorn that sours a life and makes home feel strange. And here is where this period piece speaks most clearly to our current time. When the history we have of WWII is so steeped in cinematic tropes it’s easy to forget that the Nazi’s weren’t seen as cartoon villains when they first came to power. There really were plenty of sympathisers who saw them as preferable to Communism or another war. People then, as they are too often now, were tolerant of discrimination where it made their lives easier or more peaceful.

Even at a time when every news cycle brings echoes of the racism and prejudice experienced by the characters here (from Black Lives Matter to the rights of Trans people) it’s too easy to pretend that fascist repression is not where it leads. When people are blamed for social problems because of their race, or nationality, or religion, or culture, dark clouds gather on the horizon, ones that should be familiar to us from across human history. Alternative histories can be one way to remind ourselves of them, to unpick the narratives that tell us that things could never have been different. As The Plot Against America shows, they absolutely could, and we must actively fight against prejudice wherever we find it.

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