Television Commentary: Unreeling the Newsreels in “The Plot Against America”
By Thomas Doherty
To the eternal gratitude of media historians, production designer Richard Hoover constructed a meticulous recreation of a forgotten site of motion picture spectatorship in the classical Hollywood era — the newsreel theater.
The Plot Against America, an American alternate history drama television miniseries created and written by David Simon and Ed Burns, based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Philip Roth. Premiered on HBO on March 16.
On Monday nights from March 16 to April 20, 2020, while America grappled with a real-life infection in the body politic, HBO telecast a fantasy about another kind of invasion, the takeover of the nation by homegrown Nazis. Based on Philip Roth’s counterfactual 2004 novel, The Plot Against America was a six-part miniseries written by Ed Burns and David Simon, the ace showrunner-auteurs of the legendary television series The Wire (2002-2008), itself a dystopic vision of a crime-ridden, drug-addled Baltimore. Handsomely mounted, superbly acted, and unusually faithful to the spirit of its literary inspiration, the HBO series was scarier than the standard-issue zombie apocalypse because the premise required a minimal suspension of disbelief: what would have happened had the isolationist, anti-Semitic aviator Charles Lindbergh run for the presidency in 1940, defeated FDR, and set about constructing the infrastructure for an American Reich? For a family of all-American Jews in Newark, NJ — named the Roths in the book and the Levins in the series — the answer is a nightmare in which the birthright citizens become strangers in their own land.
The show tanked in the ratings: Netflix’s true crime reality series Tiger King became the binge-watch escape hatch of choice for locked-down Americans. Perhaps the alternate history lesson was too much of a downer for viewers weighed down by the burdens of their own unexpected rendezvous with history. Or perhaps the political message was too heavy-handed — or hit too close to home. As David Simon made clear in interviews, he conceived the show as a transparent allegory for what he saw as the dark cloud of fascism descending under Donald Trump.
Me? Being laser-focused of late on Lindbergh and the 1930s, I was transfixed by The Plot Against America — especially in its use of newsreel footage and the site that showcased it, the newsreel theater. The first is a conventional enough device for time-traveling exposition; the second, near as I can tell, is unprecedented. Plenty of films have shown characters watching newsreels in a regular motion picture theater, but I can’t think of another film that offers a glimpse into the operation of a newsreel house.
Like many period-set thrillers, The Plot Against America kick-starts the action by unspooling authentic newsreel footage, in this case to trace the rise of Nazism overseas and its incubation at home. At the top of every episode, the series transports the viewer into another reality with a brisk montage rewinding a familiar archival past. Later, to further embed the drama in newsreel-validated diegesis, the Levin family patriarch Herman (a wonderful Morgan Spector), sometimes with his son Philip (Ahzy Robertson) in tow, attends screenings of the news of the day at a newsreel theater in downtown Newark. In both the intro and the narrative proper, the quick blur of black-and-white history is edited to define a zeitgeist rather than provide a datelined chronology. Only when the clips are slowed down and freeze-framed can we see how the newsreel past is used and manipulated.
The exploits and adulation of Charles Lindbergh — the real McCoy, not the actor (Ben Cole) who plays him in the series — begin the capsule history lesson: clips of the charismatic 25-year-old flyer on the drizzly morning of May 20, 1927, smiling sheepishly from the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis before taking off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, for his epochal solo flight to Pars. Thirty-three and a half hours later, he lands at Le Bourget and becomes the most famous and beloved man of his time.
Lindbergh’s takeoff — filmed by a crew from Fox News, soon to be renamed Fox Movietone News — was the first sound-on-film newsreel screened in American theaters. At Le Bourget, however, the newsreel cameras missed Lindbergh’s landing; the reason the mob of ecstatic Frenchmen is seen frantically running screen left is that the newsreel photographers had set up their equipment in the airport terminal and Lindbergh’s plane landed on the far end of the field: none caught the actual moment of touchdown. By June 13, 1927, when Lindbergh arrived in New York, the newsreel boys were better prepared. Showered in a blizzard of ticker tape, he is seen waving to rapturous crowds along Fifth Avenue. For sheer over-the-moon exhilaration and ticker tape tonnage, New York’s reception for Lindbergh has never been surpassed.
With the adulation of the Lone Eagle established, the intervening parade of events passes in review: Prohibition, breadlines, FDR, the New Deal, and — more ominous even than the Great Depression — the march of Nazism overseas and the stateside progress of the German American Bund, its domestic auxiliary. The montage mixes and meshes shots from the well-known Nazi photo album, pinging back and forth along the 1930s timeline: the haunting night-for-night footage of the book burning in Berlin in May 10, 1933, where undergraduates and storm troopers, silhouetted against the flames, gleefully hurl bound volumes into a roaring bonfire; and scenes from the boycott of Jewish shops on April 1, 1933, showing burly thugs on flatbed trucks, swastikas defacing storefronts, and a scrawled picture of a skull and crossbones with the warning “Achtung Juden.” An almost obligatory inclusion is not overlooked: shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), her celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, always the ur-source of motion picture images of the Nazi ubermenschen in jackbooted dudgeon. Clips showing the aerial strafing of Poland from the Luftwaffe point of view and a brief shot of a naked Holocaust victim rushing to her death evokes the blitzkriegs and genocide unleashed in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, on the home front, the German American Bund stages its own Nazi pageants, including a rally on February 20, 1939, that filled Madison Square Garden (an event recently retrieved from history by Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary short A Night at the Garden .) Amid the menacing swirl, headlines declare “Peace in Our Time” and Neville Chamberlain waves his white piece of paper after selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich on September 30, 1938.
The Plot Against America then extends its newsreel-centricity into the narrative itself. To the eternal gratitude of media historians, production designer Richard Hoover constructed a meticulous recreation of a forgotten site of motion picture spectatorship in the classical Hollywood era — the newsreel theater.
If you were a news junkie in 1940, and resided in the New York-Newark area, instead of binge-watching MSNBC or Fox News, you’d head once a week to the newsreel theater. Though the newsreels had been an integral part of the motion picture experience since 1914, not until November 2, 1929, with the opening of the Embassy Newsreel Theatre in the heart of Times Square, was the medium promoted from side dish to main course. For 25 cents, moviegoers watched a 50-minute program made up exclusively of newsreel clips and documentary shorts. The Embassy was an immediate hit, playing 15 shows a day, often to standing-room-only crowds. In 1931 it inspired a rival, the Trans-Lux, also located in Times Square. By 1941, spurred by demand for newsreels of the war in Europe, 28 newsreel theaters operated in major cities around the country. Before television news put the newsreel houses out of business in the late 1940s, they were the venues of choice for information hungry moviegoers — “the only visual in its day by which you could acquire the world,” as Simon put it in the companion podcast to the series that he conducted with NPR’s Peter Sagal.
A typical program might be composed of the monthly screen magazine the March of Time and a sampling of the best clips from each of the five newsreel companies (Fox Movietone News, MGM’s News of the Day, Paramount Sound News, RKO-Pathé, and Universal Newsreel). From the perspective of the digital age, the time lag from filming the news to screening it seems interminable, but in context of the times the turnaround was lightning fast. Newsreels from war-torn China took seven days to reach stateside. Newsreels showing the election of FDR on November 5, 1940, would have been seen on the East Coast two days later.
The newsreel theater recalled in Roth’s novel and evoked so lovingly in The Plot Against America was a quite real place. Situated at Broad and Market Street in downtown Newark, it billed itself as “the only theater of its kind in New Jersey showing all the Newsreels.” One-hour shows were scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, at a price of 15 cents until 2:00 p.m. and 25 cents thereafter. The 398-seat venue was a bare-bones operation: no usher, no doorman, with patrons entering through a turnstile. The house advertised the “First Films from Bomb-Blasted Coventry!” on December 14, 1940, a mere two days after the Nazi bombardments began.
Herman Levin knows the house projectionist and makes regular visits to the projection booth, giving viewers a privileged glimpse into the halcyon days of analog motion-picture projection, when the operators were highly skilled union technicians. The booths were equipped with flatbed editing tables where the projectionist stitched together the best of the newsreel clips and loaded the big reels on to carbon-arc-lamp projectors.
Oddly — and this is not a spoiler — neither the opening newsreel montage nor the programming at the newsreel theater in The Plot Against America unspools the most sensational and widely covered Lindbergh story of the 1930s: the kidnap murder in 1932 of 20-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., and the trial in 1935 and execution in 1936 of the perpetrator, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The dignified stoicism of Charles and Anne Lindbergh throughout the ordeal solidified the bond Americans felt toward the hero of 1927. Again, the possibility of his election to the president in 1940 seems no wild fancy.
The most questionable of the newsreels screened in The Plot Against America show the images we have access to but they did not: snippets of Holocaust footage and the depredations in Eastern Europe, material that was not screened stateside until the postwar era. What Americans knew of the reality of the Holocaust during World War II is a topic of endless debate, but what Americans saw in the newsreels has a more definitive answer: obviously, footage that came to light only after the war was not a part of any newsreel program in 1939-1940. The effect is to make the prewar knowledge of the Holocaust seem more vivid and verified than it was, certainly on the motion-picture screen.
A final point about the newsreel record of Nazism and the tricks of cinematic memory. Along with the newsreel theaters in New York, the newsreel theater in Newark refused to screen Nazi-certified newsreels. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels readily provided footage of the Reich’s glorious victories but he insisted that the films be screened unedited and with no skeptical voice-over commentary. Except for a few pro-German enclaves, American exhibitors refused to play the Nazi propaganda. Thus, as devoted to the newsreels as the Roths and their fictional counterparts the Levins may have been, they could not have seen all the images that we can see projected in The Plot Against America.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century, due out from Columbia University Press this fall.