Minis­eries imag­ines that it did hap­pen here

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A + E - By Michael Phillips Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic. mjphillips@chicago tri­bune.com Twit­ter @phillip­stri­bune

Work­ing quiet emo­tional mir­a­cles, Zoe Kazan is the sim­mer­ing ket­tle in the mid­dle of an in­ferno in “The Plot Against Amer­ica,” and she de­serves ev­ery avail­able award for her por­trayal in this fine, eerily evoca­tive HBO adap­ta­tion.

She’s not top-billed: Winona Ry­der is, and Ry­der’s good, in a flam­boy­ant, out­sized way. Kazan works dif­fer­ently, be­fit­ting her do­mes­tic an­chor of a char­ac­ter. There is noth­ing ex­tra­ne­ous in her per­for­mance. There is, how­ever, a world of heartache be­hind her eyes and a su­per­nat­u­ral abil­ity to judge the proper tone and rhythm of a scene.

Premier­ing March 16, HBO’s six-part minis­eries has been over­seen by writ­ers and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers David Si­mon and Ed Burns of the great, hal­lowed Bal­ti­more lament “The Wire.” Six hours, even with some un­cer­tain or ab­bre­vi­ated sto­ry­telling el­e­ments, feels right for Philip Roth’s 2004 novel. With “The Plot Against Amer­ica,” Roth, who died in 2018, remapped early 1940s Amer­i­can his­tory from a chill­ing what-if per­spec­tive: What if the Great De­pres­sion were the least of the na­tion’s prob­lems?

Imag­ine it. Franklin D. Roo­sevelt loses the 1940 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to the Repub­li­can can­di­date, avi­a­tion hero and staunch “Amer­ica First” iso­la­tion­ist Charles A. Lind­bergh. Grad­u­ally, then sud­denly, Amer­ica be­comes a dif­fer­ent Amer­ica. Anti-Semitic hate crimes sky­rocket. Soon the fed­eral govern­ment im­ple­ments the “Just Folks” re­lo­ca­tion pro­gram, plac­ing Jewish teenagers with Mid­west­ern and Western U.S. fam­i­lies, to “fur­ther and bet­ter as­sim­i­late” the Jews into main­stream, Chris­tian cul­ture.

The econ­omy re­bounds. Lind­bergh’s aura of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism and high­fly­ing hero­ism gives us an in­vis­i­ble shield of pro­tec­tion. Amer­ica nor­mal­izes re­la­tions with Adolf Hitler and the Axis pow­ers. At what point, if any, can the coun­try save it­self?

This is the back­drop for Roth’s fore­ground story of the fic­tional Levin fam­ily (named Roth in the novel). In­sur­ance man Her­man (a ter­rific, steely Mor­gan Spec­tor) and homemaker Bess (Kazan) have two sons, the Lind­bergh­wor­ship­ping Sandy (Caleb Malis) and his younger sib­ling, the au­tho­rial standin Philip (Azhy Robert­son). Top-billed Ry­der plays Bess’ sis­ter, Evelyn, the ob­ject of the re­cently ar­rived rabbi’s courtly South­ern af­fec­tions. John Tur­turro, his natural ebul­lience tightly reined in here, makes Rabbi Ben­gels­dorf an am­bigu­ous and rather touch­ing patsy, ex­ploited (too obviously in the adap­ta­tion) by the Lind­bergh ad­min­is­tra­tion for its ul­ti­mate ide­o­log­i­cal pur­poses. In the words of Her­man’s bull-headed nephew, Alvin (An­thony Boyle, straight out of a Clif­ford Odets drama in the best pos­si­ble way), Ben­gels­dorf is in charge of “kosher­ing Lind­bergh.”

The story spans 19401942. Ev­ery­where in this ver­sion of Ne­wark, New Jer­sey, beer gar­dens spring up like weeds and only Wal­ter Winchell on the ra­dio seems to be push­ing back against the ris­ing tide of in­tol­er­ance. (The Winchell of Roth’s imag­in­ing is pure hero, with none of the blem­ishes of the real Winchell.) “The hate is there,” Her­man says, af­ter World War II has re­turned one mem­ber of the fam­ily in pieces, and the coun­try heads into uncharted wa­ters. “It’s like dry leaves wait­ing on a spark.”

Like Sin­clair Lewis’ rol­lick­ing bum­mer “It Can’t Hap­pen Here” (1935), which imag­ined Roo­sevelt los­ing a sec­ond term to a Huey Long-style tyrant in pop­ulist’s cloth­ing, “The Plot Against Amer­ica” takes the fas­cist im­pulse as an ever-present pos­si­bil­ity. Per­sua­sively de­tailed pe­riod recre­ations re­lo­cate the viewer to an Amer­ica we rec­og­nize, at least from pho­tos, but the pho­tos have been re­touched by sin­is­ter forces, leav­ing New Jer­sey grave­stones pock­marked with swastikas. It takes awhile for the HBO se­ries to spark in hu­man terms. By the mid­point, how­ever, Roth’s nar­ra­tive me­chan­ics prove ir­re­sistible and the sons’ sto­ry­lines, in par­tic­u­lar, so obviously dear to Roth, pierce the heart.

Through it all Kazan’s bril­liantly shaded per­for­mance of a woman watch­ing a do­mes­tic and na­tional train wreck in slow mo­tion be­comes the glue hold­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether. The later seg­ments di­rected by Thomas Sch­lamme build upon the ear­lier episodes, adding a wel­come sweep and rhyth­mic drive (though there’s a beat or two miss­ing from the fi­nal min­utes). A year be­fore his death in 2018, Roth told The New Yorker mag­a­zine: “My novel wasn’t writ­ten as a warn­ing. I was just try­ing to imag­ine what it would have been like for a Jewish fam­ily like mine, in a Jewish com­mu­nity like Ne­wark, had some­thing even faintly like Nazi an­ti­Semitism be­fallen us in 1940.” He also said, in ef­fect, that it could hap­pen here — the “it” imag­ined by Sin­clair Lewis.

Each episode opens to the strains of the Na­tional Re­cov­ery Ad­min­is­tra­tion an­them “The Road is Open Again,” played while images of Hitler and Lucky Lindy set the twist­ed­news­reel agenda. The song was first heard in 1933, in ac­tu­al­ity, at the bot­tom of the De­pres­sion. “The Plot Against Amer­ica” shows us the bot­tom un­der­neath that one.

HBO

Zoe Kazan, right, and Mor­gan Spec­tor in HBO’s “The Plot Against Amer­ica,” a minis­eries adap­ta­tion of the Philip Roth novel.

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