HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’

The Plot Against America.

What you think about the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America will depend on whether or not the name David Simon means anything to you.

If you’ve never heard of him, then you will very probably find the six part mini-series perfectly diverting. Roth’s novel imagines a dystopian, counterfactual past in which FDR does not win his third term in 1940, and is instead defeated by the celebrity du jour and would-be fascist Charles Lindbergh.

John Turturro and Winona Ryder are introduced to the erstwhile first lady.

Lindbergh helped set up The America First Committee to promote American isolationism and keep them out of the Second World War. Championing white supremacy and blaming the Jews for trying to involve America in a European fracas, he not only refused to condemn the Nazis, he’d travelled to Germany in 1938 where he was awarded, and proudly accepted, the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Hermann Göring.

So it’s not hard to see what drew Simon to the source material. But, disappointingly, the series fails ultimately to take flight. And it fails on two counts. 

The gang’s all there, The Wire.

First, as every schoolboy knows, the best books make the worst films. And what works so well in the novel is the way in which Roth gets inside the young Philip’s head to give us a child’s-eye view of the world he finds himself in. So that the political backdrop is precisely that, a backdrop.

The book’s one failing, without wishing to give anything away, is that rather than move towards a dramatic crescendo, plot wise, it just sort of fizzles out. 

Treme.

Necessarily, in order to visualise the book, the programme makers decided to flesh out the political sub-plots in lieu of being able to dramatise what is essentially an inner monologue. But all that does is to highlight how literary the novel is, and how impossible it was always going to be to try to adapt it for the screen.

Second, and very surprisingly, it is, dialogue-wise, incredibly clunky. Everybody says exactly that they are thinking, and characters are forever spouting exposition and telling us, in case we missed it, what to think.

One episode begins with the father asking his friend why the local police aren’t protecting the Jews from the neighbourhood vigilantes. To which he replies: 

“Not many Jews on the Newark Police Force.”

“But that shouldn’t be the point”, the father says earnestly, emphasising the word shouldn’t, in case we’d missed it’s import. And so on.

What’s so especially disappointing about this is that this is the programme maker and the team who brought us The Wire. Rarely had dialogue been less on the nose.

There isn’t space here to look in more detail at what Simon has done since then. Suffice it to say, his output subsequently has looked increasingly conservative, and The Wire is looking more and more like something of an anomaly. 

Show Me A Hero.

After The Wire and Treme, skipping delicately over Generation Kill, the conservatism of Show Me A Hero, reviewed earlier here, came across as refreshing. But The Deuce, not withstanding its subject matter, was every bit as conventional. And now this.

All of which is a shame. Because the show is actually pretty good at imagining what it must be like for members of a minority community to live their normal lives, as the country they think of as their own turns inexplicably against them.

This Plot Against America isn’t a bad show. The dialogue is no more clunky than in the vast majority of shows you’re likely to sit through. And it looks every bit as ravishing as you’d expect of a modern day period piece. But I do hope we’re not going to have to re-evaluate Simon’s output. The medium needs its heroes.

You can see the trailer for The Plot Against America here

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New David Simon series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and immediately approached HBO about adapting it for television. But he got sidetracked with the phenomenally successful and justly lauded The Wire, and then by Generation Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has finally made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Haggis signed on as director without having to see any of the scripts beforehand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvious fact that it was Simon’s latest venture.

Haggis wrote and directed Crash in 2004, which explores the complexities of race and colour brilliantly, and could have been even better if only they’d held out against tacking happy endings on to a couple of its storylines.

Crash.

Crash.

One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watching Show Me A Hero is its apparent artlessness. A great deal of time and effort has been invested in rendering it entirely transparent. So that instead of using the medium to mirror the subject matter, as they did with the amphetamine fuelled fidgeting of The Wire, and the laid back languid southern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is the audience as fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the story is set in is seen not as the sort of stylized, immaculately dressed era that something like Mad Men would have presented it as. Rather, it looks and feels exactly as it did when you were actually living in it. Utterly, unforgivably vile, and cheap in a somehow expensive way. That hair, those shoulder pads, and the way that everything, even the architecture, all looks thin, insubstantial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The story centres around Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor in America when taking up the reins at Yonkers, a suburb of New York City and a city in its own right within the larger state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its residents were up in arms over the social housing development that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s particularly impressive is that Simon manages to keep his liberal sympathies in check without ever letting you lose sight of them. He focuses instead on showing us the multifaceted complexities that lie behind all apparently black and white issues.

There’s a reason the residents of Yonkers are so dead set against allowing public housing units allocated to black families into their area. Wherever that had been done before, the buildings that resulted all too quickly developed into Stygian centres for drugs and prostitution, and the organizational fulcrum for a network of petty, and not so petty crime.

Proponents of the scheme, which Wasiscko inadvertently came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been handled in the past. That this scheme would be different (which, unusually, it was), and that in any case, they were only talking about a paltry 200 housing units.

Treme.

Treme.

I’ll not say anything more, other than that I just about managed to avoid looking up what the actual outcome was, so drawn in was I with the story, and so should you. But if you recognize the Fitzgerald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

You can see the trailer to Show Me A Hero here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!




Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.