HBO Unravels WWII-Era 'Plot Against America'

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Ben Cole plays President Charles Linbergh and John Turturro is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf in "The Plot Against America." (HBO)

HBO's new series "The Plot Against America" addresses a thorny truth about U.S. history that we're not taught in school: Millions of Americans who considered themselves patriots were dead set against our participation in World War II.

Based on the 2007 novel by Philip Roth, the series was created by David Simon and Ed Burns, the remarkable team behind "The Wire," perhaps the greatest TV series ever, and the outstanding Iraq war drama "Generation Kill."

The show is airing Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and, unlike most contemporary streaming shows, it's not designed to be scarfed down in one extended binge session. Every episode is loaded with ideas and plot developments that demand reflection before you take on the next one. The one-week breaks actually allow the drama to build over time and increase its impact.

Like the original novel, the story focuses on a Jewish family in Newark in the days before the United States entered World War II. Except, in this alternate history, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 Republican nomination, promises to keep the country out of war and defeats FDR in a landslide.

It's a fact that Lindbergh (and many other Americans) admired the economic turnaround and perceived social stability that the Nazi government brought to Germany in the 1930s. Many Americans didn't think we should have participated in the Great War in 1917 and wanted to keep out of the current conflict in Europe in 1939.

Was President Lindbergh a politically naive front for pro-Nazi elements in the United States or was he a willing leader of forces that aimed to enact policies that were both racist and oppressive to religious and ethnic minoriites? Neither Roth the novelist nor Simon and Burns the show creators answer that question, allowing the aviation hero to remain an amiable cipher.

Roth's novel focused on an eight-year-old boy named Philip Roth. The show changes the family's name to Levin and no longer tells the story solely from the young boy's perspective. Parents Herman and Bess Levin (Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan) are raising their sons Phillip (Azhy Robertson) and Sandy (Caleb Malis) when the story begins.

Bess' unmarried sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) starts a romance with the much older Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a community leader who vocally supports Lindbergh even though most of his congregation is shocked by his defense of the candidate's supporters. The pilot's victory fuels a precipitous social rise for Evelyn and Lionel, one that cuts Evelyn off from her family.

The Levins have been raising Herman's nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) after the death of his parents. Alvin shocks the community by running off to Canada to join the fight against Hitler. After Lindbergh signs a peace agreement with Germany, Alvin's heroism suddenly becomes a problem for the family after the FBI determines that his foreign military service is now an anti-American act.

"The Plot Against America" is the opposite of the escapist fare that most quarantined Americans have embraced over the last couple of weeks. Simon and Burns have always written characters that inspire remarkably focused and intense performances from their actors, and these may be the most deeply felt performances they've ever gotten from a cast.

American history (at least the version taught in our schools) tends to suggest that outcomes were inevitable and that we've collectively come together in times of crisis to make the right choices. That myth leads to the idea that current leaders are doing a terrible job and that things were better back in the day.

"The Plot Against America" reminds us that politics has always been chaos. If the Roosevelt administration had managed to cut a deal with Japan in early 1941 (or if FDR had lost the 1940 election), we may never have been attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Millions of Americans who were dead set against war had an immediate change of heart on Dec. 7, 1941. What if there had been no attack? Would the destruction of freedoms around the world and the systematic killings of entire ethnic groups have eventually inspired us to join the war?

Roth's novel corrects the course of history with a shocking turn of events that's never fully explained and sets America back on a course that would be recognizable to us today. The series suggests more concrete reasons for that turn but also doesn't fully embrace the course correction the author offers in his novel.

"The Plot Against America" arrives right on time, aiming to remind viewers that the course of history is never certain and that no one should take for granted that doing the right thing will be easy for our nation.

It's not always easy to watch, but it's a great show with substantial rewards for everyone who sticks with its uncomfortable tale.

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