According to The New York Times, in 1987 the median income for a four-person household in the New York City metropolitan area was $29,500. However, to purchase a home in the wealthy enclave of Yonkers, one needed to be making about 150% more than that figure. Meanwhile, a lawsuit revealed that managers for the 80% white city had effectively used federal money to keep Yonkers segregated for decades. The result was a court order to build 800 units of low income housing on the rich, eastern, mostly white side of the city. These are the facts, figures and historical context of “The Wire” creator David Simon’s “Show Me A Hero,” but the only agenda in this masterful six hour miniseries are the people. A rich, textured, humanistic slice of true history, “Show Me A Hero” is foremost a terrific drama that only resonates more deeply because decades later, America is still grappling with similar problems of class and race.
Don’t let the title fool you. While there are more than a couple of heroes to be found in the six-hour drama, Simon isn’t interested in creating easy sinners or saints with which to paint a simplistic tale of justice served. Rather, when we first meet Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), he’s just a young city councilman looking to shake the long installed old guard. He gets his chance when he’s chosen to run against incumbent mayor Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) by his supposed enemies. “Don’t Get Mad, Get A New Mayor” is Nick’s campaign slogan, and the major anchor of his platform is that he’ll appeal the low-income house ruling as far as the courts will allow. This is great news for monied, voting residents of Yonkers who don’t want to see their property values go down. However, Nick is in for a rude awakening when he wins the election.
He learns that the path of an appeal is a dead end, and worse, financial sanctions will soon start seriously threatening Yonkers’ coffers the longer the city, and in particular, certain councilmen — including the slimy Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina) — don’t vote to pass the housing measure. Nick is forced to go back on his campaign promise, and now has to try and steer the rest of the city officials toward getting a low income housing deal done. It’s a move that will potentially see Yonkers saved from bankruptcy — that it’s a long overdue step towards progress is an afterthought — but it’s a point that’s lost on the angry citizens who voted Nick in and are now out for blood.
Much like he did in “The Wire,” Simon, along with co-writers Lisa Belkin and William F. Zorzi, create a rich tapestry of American life that goes far beyond political or legal corridors. Single mothers, a Dominican immigrant, a young man who can’t escape the thrill of street life, a young woman who falls into drug addiction — they are all characters that are part of the fabric of the community around which this story revolves. Where Simon and co. excel in the writing of “Show Me A Hero” is wiping away any unrealistic illusion that those who fill low-income housing are always well-meaning people caught up in a system that keeps them down. Simon doesn’t go for those simplicities — these are people, and some of them are good and ambitious, while others are given to their worst impulses. In short, they’re human; flawed, but no less worthy of dignity.
In many ways, as the series unfolds, it’s that intangible quality that becomes key to the bigger questions “Show Me A Hero” quietly asks. How can we expect those that are given low income housing to thrive if the apartments and homes are made with substandard quality? Where is the dignity in preventing those who need a helping hand from moving onto your street? And where does it say in the pull-up-by-your-own-bootstraps ethos of the American Dream, that assisting your fellow citizen — those who have fallen through the cracks, taken a sideways turn, or indeed, are victims of systemic prejudice — is an untenable position?
The not-always-easy alliance between the personal and the political lies at the heart of “Show Me A Hero,” and the two dovetail in a beautiful, surprising scene at the end of the second episode. Picking up a ringing phone while his secretaries are out, Nick finds himself on the line with Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), a local citizen who becomes a vocal activist in the fight against the housing, and was ordered to be removed during a recent council meeting. Surprised to have actually reached the mayor directly, she listens as he explains the legal reasons why the housing must go through, but then asks why he still can’t speak out against it anyway. “That not what a leader is supposed to do. A leader is supposed to lead, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Nick answers. It’s a moment of connection between the two sides, and perhaps an answer that surprises both Nick and Mary. Removed from the vitriolic and antagonistic media soundbites, volatile hearings, and combative dealmaking with politicians that are rooted in ulterior motives, a rare, quiet moment emerges where two people hear clearly what the other is saying. It’s powerful precisely because both in the series and in life, it doesn’t happen often.
As “Show Me A Hero” enters its latter half, more thematic riches are to be found as characters grapple with the burden of having done the right thing at the wrong time. But perhaps most profoundly and movingly felt is the faith that Simon ultimately has in people. While he clearly disdains the broken, dysfunctional tools of politics, the qualities that shine brightest are the individuals both within and without who survive, support, and unselfishly carry on the day-to-day, unrecognized tasks of keeping families and neighborhoods thriving. While this part of Yonkers history is recorded in court documents, Simon achieves a stirring human chronicle to complement it.
It helps that he has a terrific cast to work with. Oscar Isaac gives what may be the best performance of his career to date. His Nick Wasicsko can be idealistically brave, cruelly political, and unforgivably selfish, but he makes you feel for what is ultimately Nick’s act of martyrdom — one that tragically goes unrecognized. Catherine Keener also does great work as the equally complex yin to Nick’s yang, Mary Dorman, and her arc is one of the series’ best pleasures. Winona Ryder pulls out some great stuff in her turn as Nick’s friend and political ally, councilwoman Vinni Restiano, who is as tough as nails as the men around her. Meanwhile, Jon Bernthal has great fun as the not-quite-jaded, but certainly been-around-the-block NAACP lawyer, Michael Sussman.
Directed with great craftsmanship by Paul Haggis, and powered by an organically felt selection of Bruce Springsteen tunes, ”Show Me A Hero” is an outstanding and deeply soulful miniseries drama delivered at the kind of top-tier level that only comes along every few years or so. It’s not just a slice of true history, but a probing, entertaining look at how the politics of fear and prejudice can curdle even the most earnest of American ideals and progress. However, even within that atmosphere, “Show Me A Hero” shows that a few seeds can blossom, ones that carry the best of what we want for ourselves and each other. [A+]