Nope, this statement is not about Donald Trump, but it might as well be. In The Plot Against America, a quietly unnerving alt-history drama, these words are spoken by the politically outspoken insurance salesman Herman Levin (Morgan Spector). Herman sees and hears that a populist candidate is running for president: Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), an antisemitic, isolationist aviator who decries the US involvement in WWII. (The real Lindbergh never ran for office, but was a famous presence.)
Contrary to history, Lindbergh not only runs for president but beats Franklin D Roosevelt at the elections. The series never shows him clearly; there’s a frightening Invisible Man quality to him. His ominous figure is relegated to shots from far away, or floating through dinner party shadows, or delivering the same America First speech over and over on projected newsreels and radio broadcasts.
The story instead shifts to a specific neighbourhood in New Jersey, home to a thriving Jewish community where the Levin family resides.
Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) with his sons Phillip (Azhy Robertson) and Sandy (Caleb Malis). Photo: HBO
Herman, the patriarch, constantly re-affirms his American identity with his Jewish heritage. His wife Bess, Zoe Kazan in a career-best performance, maintains her home but disdains aggressive political talk and its impact on the children: teenage artist Sandy (Caleb Malis) and 10-year-old observer Phillip (Marriage Story’s Azhy Robertson).
Then there’s Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who’s even more active in the fight against Lindbergh – and injustice generally – than his uncle. Alvin’s more intent on actions than words, even joining the Canadian army to fight the Nazis in the so-called ‘European war’.
This alt-history America unfolds quietly, subtly. The story isn’t buried in the dangerous thicket of oppressive tyranny, but circles the edge of its potential, uncomfortable growth. Enter John Turturro as media-savvy rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who publicly endorses Lindbergh – assuring sceptics that he’s a great guy, actually. He enters a relationship with Bess’s sister Evelyn, played by an always brilliant Winona Ryder who uses every anxious face she has.
Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) meeting the mother of his new partner, Evelyn (Winona Ryder). Photo: HBO
The series sets up these gradual political moves that lead, predictably, to a nation charged with antisemitism. Soon, assimilation programmes are set up, in which Jewish residents learn the ‘American way’ by living in the South. The governmental permission for prejudice seeps into the people and raises their abusive confidence. The Plot Against America is less about the worst that can happen, and more about how it can happen.
The most compelling, tempting conflict through the series is fighting versus flying, which becomes the core division between Herman and Bess. When Herman insists that America is his country, Bess replies: ‘Not any more! It is Lindbergh’s, it is the Jew-haters’, it is the America Firsters’.’ Given the upsetting realities in the States right now, it’s a painfully evocative scene. The series asks a frightening question: is it worth staying to save your country or leaving to protect your family?
Although The Plot Against America concludes with an easy resolution, you’re left with bleak messages about political stubbornness. The characters have learned little: they can’t see how easily penetrable their country was and is to right-wing demagogues and fascist ideologies. The series, hopefully, provides a good lesson: not only can it happen here, but it could happen again.
The Plot Against America airs on Tuesday 14 July at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
|The Plot Against America, Sky Atlantic review
14 Jul 20 – 14 Jul 21, ON SKY ATLANTIC