22 June 2020

Nazi sympathisers in the White House? The Plot Against America presents an alternate history

The deeply unsettling speculative drama The Plot Against America is now available to binge on Showmax.

Produced by the award-winning creators of The Wire and The Deuce, David Simon and Ed Burns, this six-part limited series imagines a world in which Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the US presidential election of 1940 to aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathiser. 

What follows is the terrifying and tension-building tale of America’s turn to fascism, told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey in the build-up to World War II.

The stellar cast is led by Emmy nominee Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick, Olive Kitteridge), Morgan Spector (Homeland, Boardwalk Empire), Golden Globe nominee John Turturro (The Night Of) and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder (Stranger Things). 

At the centre of the story is sensitive 10-year-old Philip, played by Marriage Story’s Azhy Robertson, trying to make sense of the bewildering and increasingly frightening changes in his world, alongside his rebellious teenage brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis).   

The series is directed by Thomas Schlamme, Emmy-winning exec producer and director of The West Wing, and BAFTA nominee Minkie Spiro (Fosse/Verdon, Downton Abbey and Better Call Saul).

“It’s not about ‘What if Nazis became the people in power in America?’ It’s about, ‘What if people came to power in America who allowed Nazism, and allowed fascism, and allowed anti-Semitism to become part of the mainstream in this culture? What happens to ordinary people?”

Zoe Kazan

Stranger than fiction

Paste Magazine calls the series “an alternate history that doesn’t seem so alternate right now.”

The series is based on the acclaimed novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth, which, Simon explains, “was a dystopian American political fantasy about what happens to a family, and what happens to a country, when it’s led astray by right populism and the rhetoric of fear.” 

“The parallels between that imagined time and ours,” he says, “are pretty profound.”

The cast and crew agree with Simon. “At the present time,” Schlamme says, “there’s a reason this story is being told. The fear of the other is as pronounced as it has been, probably in a hundred years.” 

“What we’re seeing right now is people just demonising whole groups of people … and things can turn very quickly,” Turturro says. 

“Mr. Roth saw what could happen so quickly in a country where there were underlying tensions,” says Burns. “I think that this particular book, and our adaptation of this book, is a warning. It’s saying, ‘Pay attention. Wake up. Do something.’” 

“It’s about what happens when an ideology that’s built to oppress one kind of person becomes the mainstream,” says Kazan. “It’s not about ‘What if Nazis became the people in power in America?’ It’s about, ‘What if people came to power in America who allowed Nazism, and allowed fascism, and allowed anti-Semitism to become part of the mainstream in this culture? What happens to ordinary people?’” 

Crucially for our investment in the characters, and despite the enormity of the series’ political context, The Plot Against America is first and foremost the story of a family. 

As Ryder says, “The paranoia that is getting stirred up and the hatred, and all the stuff about the ‘other’ … I think anyone, no matter where they really stand on certain issues, [is] going to react to the humanity in this, and what happens when we lose sight of that.”

As the direct impact of systemic injustice on individual human beings plays out on the streets of America and in global headlines, The Plot Against America seems only to grow more relevant. “America is this country on a knife-edge all the time,” Spector believes. “We’re not a fascist place, because we’ve beaten fascism by *this* much. [But] it’s always a close call. And I think that’s what this story reminds us: that we have to keep fighting for it.”

Spiro believes, “We all can make a difference. If this can go just a small way to reminding people that life – everybody’s life – is precious, it would be … a good thing.”

What the critics say

The Plot Against America has an 81% average score on Metacritic and an 86% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the consensus reads: “A cautionary tale that hits close to home, The Plot Against America’s handsomely realized revisionist history is disturbingly relevant.”

Hollywood Reporter calls it “A six-hour nightmare with an insidious creep. The 16 years since The Plot Against America was published have changed the story’s impact and resonance from an almost sci-fi-like warning to a queasy kind of recognition. These six hours should freak you out; if they don’t, that demands introspection, too.”

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