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“The Plot Against America:” Philip Roth’s “What If..?” Is David Simon’s “What Now?”

“Staying true to the intent of the book, while also doing the things necessary to make it a viable miniseries, it was kind of agony.”

David Simon (The Wire) has things to say about the current state of politics and democracy in the U.S. In an interview for Salon, he talks about “an insurgent populist, a great hero to many Americans.. [who runs] on a platform of isolationism and xenophobia and barely hidden antisemitism.”

Oh… apologies. That was Simon describing Charles Lindbergh’s presidential bid in his new HBO limited-series The Plot Against America. 

Based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, the show depicts an alternate history where Lindbergh runs a campaign, fueled by bigotry and isolationism, against incumbent president Franklin Roosevelt. “That moment really does echo into this.” Both Lindbergh and our current President, Simon says, argue “xenophobic things about the immigrants, the immigrant class, about people who are a little different than what he thinks is normative, white America, white Protestant America. We have a rise in antisemitism. We have a rise in race hate, in crimes and in human rights affronts on our southern border. We’re separating families.”

Read more: Can It Happen Here? In “The Plot Against America,” It Already Did

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” John Turturro

However, Lindbergh is a minor character, not the star of the show. Instead, the story plays out through the lens of a second generation, working-class, Jewish-American family living in New Jersey in 1940.  Roth’s novel, Simon told Collider, is “an incredibly astute parlor drama, in which you experienced an American dry run at fascism, from within the lives of a vulnerable cohort… Jewish Americans, suddenly, were having their loyalties questioned and their politics questioned… That was the rhetoric of the moment, of isolationism and of Lindbergh and of America first, which is where that phrase originated.”

Read more: “It Can’t Happen Here:” The Horrifying Power of The Plot Against America

“We’re in the same moment now, but the vulnerable cohorts are people of black and brown skin and Muslims. They are being used as the feared other to drive a nationalism and a latent racism and anti-Semitism,” says Simon.

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” John Turturro

Despite being one of television’s finest writer-producers, Simon felt the weight of adapting the novel. “Roth is one of our great novelists,” he tells Salon. “For the first time I was adapting somebody’s novel and it wasn’t just any somebody, it was Philip Roth. …[T]he truth is every day I woke up feeling like, well, I’m a TV hack and I’m about to do surgery on a novel by Philip Roth. So staying true to the intent of the book, while also doing the things necessary to make it a viable miniseries, it was kind of agony.”

Read more: In the Decade Since The Wire, David Simon Has Produced TV That Matters

Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) and Morgan Spector (Homeland) play Elizabeth and Herman Levin, parents of two sons, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson). Lionel Bengelsdorf, the politically conservative rabbi, who champions Lindbergh and joins his administration, is portrayed by John Turturro (Barton Fink). Winona Ryder (Heathers, Stranger Things) is Evelyn Finkel, Elizabeth’s sister who falls for the power and charisma of Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” Winona Ryder

Simon had worked previously with Ryder on his HBO mini-series, Show Me a Hero. “She was very much ready to cast off the America’s ingenue mantle and start acting some hard adult roles,” Roth says in the Collider interview, “and she has the chops to do it, she really does.”

Explaining the difficulty of shooting a period piece to Salon, the producer says, “Everywhere you point the camera is wrong. Just finding a street where there weren’t so many wires, overhead wires that we had to paint out for 1940s Newark… Wherever you point the camera, something is historically wrong.“

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis

Director of Photography, Martin Ahlgren took inspiration from Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt, and Robert Frank, photographers active during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the golden age of photojournalism.

“The photographers of that period created images that told complicated human stories with authenticity and ambiguity,” Ahlgren tells No Film School, “The photographs have an elegance and immediacy that puts you right in the scene, often by using wider lenses close to the action, with greater depth of field, and framings that present levels of depth that allow us to look around and find multiple areas of interest.”

“I don’t think the photojournalism of that time was necessarily looking for deep focus, but there also wasn’t this kind of romanticism with shallow depth of field that we see today.” Ahlgren explains that “holding the foreground and background in focus can give intimate shots a larger-than-life quality, including the world, even in more intimate moments.”

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:”

The DP tested five cameras to find the right combination of shooting format and resolution. “I thought going in that the RED Helium was going to be a real contender, because it has a tight pixel pitch making it possible to record on a small part of the sensor and still have enough resolution, but we didn’t think it had the right look for this project. …What won out in the end was the Sony VENICE windowed down to a smaller sensor size at 3K. It’s not to say it’s a superior camera, but for our purposes, with the windowed sensor and higher ISO, it won me over.”

From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:”
From HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis

Though the novel was published in 2004, Simon explains to Salon that he uses The Plot Against America as an allegory for present day America, applying “the history that you know and the lessons that you know, rather than take this fast-moving dynamic of the current administration where everything changes every 48 hours and try to capture that. We’ll probably know a lot more about how to depict what happened in America in the last four years looking back on it from four years hence.”

“As citizens, this is our moment. This is our historical pivot. What happens in the next year or two is gonna affect the future of our Republic, if our Republic does, indeed, have a future. It’s that critical. Democracy and freedom, and the freedom that democracy provides, are never entirely won. It’s a daily struggle. …If you stop demanding your own freedom and your own civil liberties, they disappear. This generation of the electorate is now being challenged, in ways that previous generations were also challenged. How we behave, in how we vote, whether we have the capacity to resist, and what we’re willing to tolerate and not tolerate, are essential questions. So, I wanted those questions in the air, after you watch this piece, and I hope they are.”

The Plot Against America, is currently running on HBO and is available streaming and on demand.

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