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'The Plot Against America' review: What works so well on the page becomes inert on the screen

John Turturro in "The Plot Against America."

John Turturro in "The Plot Against America."  Credit: HBO/Michele K. Short

MINISERIES "The Plot Against America"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT David Simon and Ed Burns ("The Wire '' and much else) have adapted this Philip Roth alt-history based on his 2004 novel about the 1940 election, in which Charles Lindbergh unseats FDR for the White House. "Lindy" gradually began to persecute Jews, including those in Weequahic section of Newark where Roth, who died in 2018, grew up and which is the inspiration for so much of his work. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), his wife Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan), and their children Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson) are at first puzzled, then horrified. Herman's nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle) heads to Canada to enlist, while Elizabeth's sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder) grows ever closer to Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Lindy collaborator who devises a plan called "Just Folks" to disperse the tribe.

 The "plot" of the title? You'll find out by the 6th and final episode. 

MY SAY Imagine if Roth was alive right now. Who knows? He might even come out of retirement to write the great COVID-19 novel, filtered through one of his alter egos and set against the crazy quilt of American life, made crazier by the virus. "The American adventure was one’s engulfing fate," he once wrote. That engulfing fate would frame this novel, stoke its paranoia.

Some day in the future, after all the praise and awards, a well-meaning admirer would produce the much-anticipated TV series based upon this novel.

That series would be unwatchable.

This brings us to Simon's "Plot Against America," which is certainly not unwatchable and may even be the best adaptation of a Roth novel ever. But before you consider that high praise, consider the competition: There haven't been all that many and most were pretty bad with the exception of "Portnoy's Complaint" (1972) which was execrable.

Like all great novelists, Roth is meant to be read, not watched. Nevertheless, sitting through these six hours, it's easy to see this as his posthumous attempt to rebut that. This "Plot" doesn't succeed but he certainly got the right two guys for the job.

 Simon and Roth started developing this years ago, when President Donald Trump was still a fading reality show host, so best not approach "Plot" as some thinly disguised parable about a real MAGA chief executive and his alt-history analog. Newark "was my sensory key to all the rest," Roth also once wrote. "This passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined." 

Roughly translated: Get the little details right. Simon and Burns do. Filmed through a sepia lens, their Weequahic and its denizens are so real you can touch them. Simon is a master of the street-level view. This view is masterful, too.

This also re-imagines Roth's family in the time of terror, as he did. How would they react? Who would be the quisling among them? This "Plot" — also his — looks at how some people rationalize away evil, how some don't, and how they all realize just how limited their options are. 

But what works so well on the page becomes inert on the screen. This superb cast, headed by the always fine Spector, fights the inertia but it can't fight the novel. That "specificity" is what really matters, also how character defines action, and how action is engulfed by fate. Roth captured big, complicated ideas about a big complicated country. They're far too big for any screen. Sorry — even one as lovingly attended to as this one.

BOTTOM LINE Reverent, intelligent, inert.

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