Biweekly Binge: The monochromatic bleakness of The Plot Against America
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's The Plot Against America, streaming on Hotstar
Philip’s (Azhy Robertson) friend Earl, with his opulent but independent life, starts by saying, “Let’s do something awful,” whenever he wants to enlist Philip for one of his nefarious escapades. One such pastime of his begins like this: “Let’s follow people.” He is simply including Philip on his stalking endeavours, choosing a man or a woman on the street, following them till their destination, usually a wealthy neighbourhood, and Earl even keeps records of this. This is how he maps the town. In David Simon’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, this simple, harmless-for-their-ten-year-old-selves pursuit takes a different meaning. Whom to follow? Who is speaking the truth? Who is a legitimate hero, if there are heroes at all?
It was also an era of heroes. The cult of personality thrived unlike any other. Charles Lindbergh was an aviation hero and the idea of the oncoming American dream, a hero to look up to as the country was dusting off the Depression era. Lindbergh was also a racist and believed to be a Nazi sympathizer. Philip Roth’s novel details an alternate history where Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential elections and begins a wave of xenophobia, fascism, and anti-Semitism. He is against US’s intervention in the Second World War and signs a treaty to that effect with his partner in crime across the Atlantic – Adolf Hitler. So, Lindbergh’s forty-two-word speech that he spells out ad nauseum catches on, and his aura only brightens to blind.
Philip’s family of four — his socialist father Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), his mother Bess (Zoe Kazan), and elder brother Sandy (Caleb Malis) — is part of a working-class Jewish neighbourhood of Weequahic in Newark. Philip is named for Roth himself, who grew up in Weequahic, and much of the series is framed from the point of view of younger people, like Philip and Sandy. Of course, reams can be and have already been written about how this might be alternate past but is really the present and future of the world. However, this column is not about that. This is about the way The Plot Against America depicts aridity of the period, an anti-Semite, fascist America sold on speeches and style that even a rabbi falls for the ruse. This is less about adaptation and more about the visual representation of that period and its specific anxieties and vulnerabilities.
To get this point across, directors Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme go for muted colours, almost monochromatic. There is only black, white, a little bit of ochre, the sunlight streaming in and the lens flares and shadows. The Plot Against America is doggedly colourless and spiritless, as if the apocalypse is about to break the world into several little pieces. Martin Ahlgren’s cinematography uses closeups, over-the-shoulder, or point-of-view shots to display the ruthless ways in which the ideology is stuffed onto impressionable minds. We see Sandy or Philip’s empty eyes looking on as their parents argue with other elders or worry about something seemingly beyond their understanding. In many scenes, the children are foregrounded while the action occurs behind them. Sandy and Philip become antithetical to each other, the elder brother fast becoming a Lindbergh fan and taking part in their “absorption” programs on his aunt Evelyn’s (Winona Ryder) insistence, while Philip is too young to make decisions of his own, often having the deer in headlights look about everyone from his parents and his cousin Alvin to his friend Earl.
The tempered colours are further enhanced by the claustrophobic ways in which The Plot Against America is filmed. We often see Herman in newsreel theatres watching the news of the war in Europe (this is early 1940s), sometimes with his friend in the projection room that is all dark, dingy and yellow with realms of film reels. Or the vegetable market that his brother works in. Even the interiors of the Levin household have tightly-filled spaces and a basement that is shared with another family living under the same roof. In contrast, Lindbergh’s addresses demand open spaces and the ringing endorsement that rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) delivers is shot like theatre, one of the Nazi beer hall speeches with only the rabbi addressing crowds of faceless men in the dark.
Herman and Bess find it hard to reconcile with their idea of America. Herman has been sold the dream, he considers it his country and believes that its rich history will save it, and he is emblematic of that. Bess is quick to decide to emigrate to Canada. They are blocked in front of the radio in the living room, Herman in his night clothes and Bess finishing up in the kitchen, or sometimes, Herman in front of newsreels and Bess in front of immediate manifestations of a fascist state during interactions with friends and family. David Simon shows usually involve delving deep into systemic fault lines and irregularities that reek of the vast divide between public policy and its implementation. But, The Plot Against America is a very un-Simon like miniseries in that it takes the montage and vignette route of showing a society depleting at such a rapid pace that there is no time to think, only run.