It was one hell of a summer in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh, 25, made a non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris. So wrote Bill Bryson in his brilliant book One Summer: America 1927. Bryson goes on to give detailed accounts of Lindbergh being mobbed everywhere he went, and how uncomfortable he was with the attention.
It’s difficult to imagine the shy young man who grew up on a Michigan farm running for the most high-profile job in the world – the President of the USA.
But in the years between his solo flight and his election campaign in 1940, the aviator joined the air force and became a decorated officer; dealt, very publicly, with the tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of his baby son; and in the years before the United States entered World War II – which is where the HBO series The Plot Against America begins – was distinctly anti-war, but did not shy away from making distasteful statements about Jews that led many to believe he was a Nazi sympathiser and an anti-Semite. With his outspoken beliefs, it’s not completely unbelievable to me that he could have attained the highest office in the country at that fragile time.
Philip Roth thought so too, and imagined this alternative history in his 2004 novel, which the powerhouse duo behind another HBO series The Wire (one of the best – ever), Ed Burns and David Simon, adapted into the six-part miniseries. Both the novel and the show draw us into the story of Lindbergh beating Franklin D Roosevelt to what would have been his third term in the White House, and the effects of his presidency on the whole country.
Meet the Levins
The story is told from the point of view of the Levin family: patriarch Herman (Morgan Spector), his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), and their two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Azhy Robertson as the younger son, Philip.
Winona Ryder (wow, just wow) plays Evelyn Finkel, Bess’s older, unmarried, independently minded sister, who falls for the charismatic rabbi and Lindbergh supporter Lionel Bengelsdorf, played superbly by John Turturro (who sounds like he’s channeling Christopher Walken’s style of speech).
While their mother is pleased with this fine match her daughter has appeared to make, the other family members are more concerned as to how things will play out for the Jews of New Jersey – and America.
Herman regularly visits a cinema to watch news reels from Europe (and the marquee outside is used as a cunning device to display headlines for viewers as well as the characters), and the footage is brutal, shocking and terrifying. Will this happen in their country too? How to even contemplate such a thing?
Critical acclaim for The Plot Against America
“That unholy phrase – ‘it can’t happen here’, incredulity and naivety and hubris all wrapped up in one futile reassurance – gets uttered in Ed Burns and David Simon’s new TV adaptation of Roth’s novel, a high-gloss prestige miniseries. It sounds out like a death knell for all those who speak it,” writes Charles Bramesco, The Guardian.
It is extraordinary, masterful TV, writes Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe. “The story, an alternative history that makes Charles Lindbergh the president in 1940 and sees the rise in fascism and anti-Semitism in the United States, is chilling and resonant. We see how the political shifts permanently alter the life of a New Jersey family.”
With strong roots in fact, the tweaking of the truth presents a not entirely improbable turn of events with devastating results. Heck, we only have to turn to the news channels right now for that.
Gorgeous set and costume design
As the show wrapped up in the States last month, you’ll find spoilers if you search long enough, and even though that’s what you’ll find in this link, it offers some lovely insight on the overall look of the series. You’ll be immediately drawn into the aesthetics, with the carefully created locations and authentic costumes of the 1940s, trilby hats and all.
The challenges of rewriting history and adapting novels
As always with books being adapted into series or movies, there have been some changes made – perhaps the biggest being the point of view. The novel is written from young Philip’s perspective. It’s no coincidence that this character shares the same first name as the author.
And though I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief for an alternative rewriting of history, the distortion of some facts just irk me (FYI, I also wonder why they wear watches in The Walking Dead). For instance, in episode 2, Lindbergh is seen arriving at an airfield in his plane, The Spirit Of St Louis.
In reality, Lindbergh gave the plane to the Smithsonian in 1928, flying it from St Louis to the old Bolling Field in south-east Washington. Escorted by motorcycle police, it was towed, partly disassembled, to the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building – so there’s no way he could have still been flying the plane in 1940.
Personally, I found episode 1 a bit of a struggle, and had to watch it twice to be sure. But episode 2 ramped everything up, and did a very good job of setting the scene for the rest of the series. If you feel the same after the first episode, persevere. The Plot Against America is not easy viewing, and isn’t made to be background viewing while you’re scrolling on your phone, but, after episode 2, I’m convinced it’s worth it.