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The Plot Against America is chilling: Philip Roth's alt history classic has become a dazzling drama

The Plot Against America starts on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV tonight

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John Turturro as Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who supports the Nazi-friendly Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America, Sky Atlantic

John Turturro as Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who supports the Nazi-friendly Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America, Sky Atlantic

John Turturro as Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who supports the Nazi-friendly Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America, Sky Atlantic

“I read the book again and I thought, ‘Nah, it’s not the right time’. And then, three years later: Trump.” This is what David Simon told Esquire magazine in April when talking about his and Ed Burns’ dazzling mini-series, The Plot Against America, starting on Sky Atlantic tonight.

The idea of adapting the late Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel about the USA sleepwalking into a fascist dictatorship was first suggested to Simon in 2013 – as it happens, the very same year I read the book.

Barack Obama had won a second term and the country seemed to be moving towards a more inclusive society.

The story of a celebrity demagogue with no political experience who appeals to fear and bigotry, buddies up to dictators, does their bidding and rides into the White House on a crude, racist, jingoistic message of “America First” seemed like an outlandish fantasy.

Then, as Simon said, along came Trump. If the timing of the mini-series was appropriate when it was shown on HBO in March, it feels even more so a few months later.

The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened if Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole) had beaten Franklin D Roosevelt in 1940.

Events are witnessed through the eyes of the Levins (called the Simons in the novel), a working- class Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey.

The novel’s narrator is 10-year-old Philip (Azhy Robertson), but Simon and Burns replace the memoir-style perspective with a broader point of view that encompasses the experiences of the entire family.

What was the novel’s foreshadowing – albeit an unconscious one – of things to come now feels like a queasy echo of things that have already happened.

Few people, at least among New Jersey’s Jewish community, treat Lindbergh’s campaign as anything but a joke, not least head of the Levin family Herman (Morgan Spector), an insurance agent and Roosevelt Democrat.

Lindbergh is a national hero who made the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight and won the sympathy of millions after his infant son was kidnapped and murdered.

However, his non-interventionist views, pro-Hitler stance and disparaging comments about Jews (all fact, not fiction) render him unelectable – until, that is, he is elected in a landslide.

Tonight's opening two episodes, which end with President Lindbergh proclaiming, “We’ve taken our country back”, brilliantly evoke the creeping sense of unease through the radio broadcasts always playing in the background and the newsreels carrying images of a bombed London and Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and Poland.

Herman turns down a promotion because it would mean moving to a new neighbourhood swarming with pro-Nazi Germans. Herman’s wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) takes a job in a New York department store and is unnerved by the rich WASP women wearing pro-Lindbergh badges on their coats and anti-Semitic sentiments on their sleeves.

Meanwhile, her brittle, unmarried sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder), a schoolteacher, becomes assistant then lover to the charismatic Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who compliantly plays into Lindbergh’s hands.

The only one in the family who realises the full implications of what’s happening is Herman’s tearaway cousin Alvin (Northern Irish actor Anthony Boyle), who ends up enlisting in the Canadian army.

Subsequent episodes focus on the effects on Philip and his teenage brother Sandy (Caleb Malin), who idolises Lindbergh and begins to be seduced and brainwashed by the new order.

The Plot Against America faithfully adapts the novel, yet also amplifies several characters and plot elements. It’s a stunning alt history drama that suddenly feels like reportage in period garb.

5 stars

Herald