Overview: Show Me a Hero is a six-part HBO miniseries based on the book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, directed by Paul Haggis, and co-written by David Simon and William F. Zorzi. HBO; 2015.
Hero Candidate One, Oscar Isaac: Show Me a Hero chronicles the housing desegregation in late 1980s Yonkers, New York, under Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the youngest mayor in the United States in November 1987. Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Wasicsko. From 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis to 2014’s A Most Violent Year, Isaac has passed the point of being categorized as a great up-and-coming actor to being one of the elite actors working today. Wasicsko’s journey runs the gambit of highs and lows. From the early and awkward beginnings of his campaign, to the unruly and riotous council meetings at the height of the issue, and finally to his tragic end, Isaac brings a life and charisma to Wasicsko, something the youngest mayor in America certainly had.
Hero Candidate Two, David Simon: David Simon’s pedigree in television is widely known. He wrote and produced for Homicide: Life on the Street, created and produced Treme, and the pinnacle of television programming with The Wire. As he did with The Wire, Simon presents Yonkers’ story from the perspective of a diverse swath of citizens. Wasicsko is the foundation, but structured upon and around him are the citizens who would benefit from the housing, the citizens that oppose the housing, the judge, the lawyers, and the politicians who stand beside and against Wasicsko. The greatest success of The Wire was how Simon painted a complete picture of Baltimore, from the top of the city government, to the working class citizens, and all the way down to the streets. Show Me a Hero follows that model as the city of Yonkers is illustrated with comparable brush strokes.
Hero Candidate Three, Catherine Keener: The characters are given room to breathe, each with an established arc that becomes increasingly clear over the serialized six-segment story. One of the most interesting characters is Mary Dorman, portrayed by Catherine Keener. Dorman is an older citizen living on the East side who decides to join the movement to oppose the desegregation. Dorman presents her case as a want to maintain property value, the community, and a lifestyle that has been established in her neighborhood, views commonly shared by the more aware and less extreme citizens. Keener’s performance is another standout of the series. She conveys Dorman’s thinly veiled racism while maintaining enough likeability (or at least hope) in the character to accommodate a final turn in character development. There is a nuance to her points which is lacking in other vitriolic protesters, but presenting prejudice with a face of something more easily digested does not make it excusable, which is why Keener’s complex performance is so well-suited.
An Intersection of Heroes: The most interesting scene of the series involves Dorman and Wasicsko as Part Two comes to a close. The city has been found in contempt of court for not abiding by the judges mandate and Dorman has been thrown out of the most recent council meeting for disparaging Wasicsko’s late father. The telephone rings as Wasicsko reads the newspaper alone in his office. He picks up with Dorman on the line as she requests to speak to the mayor. A simple “This is the mayor” from Wasicsko causes a brief comedic beat as Dorman pauses holding her coffee mug. It is a simple scene, with only the two on opposite ends of a phone line, but in these brief moments these two layered characters come together in a captivating moment of the most mundane variety. They each present their point and their reasons, and then discuss the confrontation they had at the prior meeting that led to Dorman’s ejection. They come to a temporary understanding and a quiet respect falls over the scene as they each wordlessly stare in thought.
Hero Candidate Four, Paul Haggis:Simon, Isaac, and Keener aren’t alone in their excellence, as director Paul Haggis leaves a measurable and positive mark. Haggis, of course, is best known for winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for Crash, which is an event since widely noted for its absurd undeservedness, one that still feels even more ridiculous to type as film fact. However, my opinion of Haggis shifted a little with Show Me a Hero. Haggis takes Simon and Zorzi’s vision effectively to screen. The series is set in Yonkers from 1987 to 1993, and using actual locations in Yonkers to shoot, Haggis captures the essence of the city from that time. The real locations, such as the projects in West Yonkers to the City Council Chambers, combined with the costume design and muted visual color styles make the time period believable. Haggis shoots the city council meetings, protests, and rallies with a focused, sometimes wandering and sometimes uncomfortable lens. As the housing issue grows, the city loses control over the public council meetings as protesters flood the chambers and the streets loudly spewing their discontent. As the council conducts business you can barely hear their dialogue or their votes. The camera tends to linger on the crowd’s displeasure with a sort of odd fascination to the point where the viewer feels a tinge of the uneasiness the council members must have felt working in that environment. It’s loud, obnoxious, and unnerving. You just want to scream at the screen for quiet, or, at the very least, hear someone yell something sensible. Haggis doesn’t give in. He forces the viewer into the crowd, a first person occupation of civil unrest.
Overall: While it is not equal to The Wire (truly, nothing is), Show Me a Hero is culturally relevant and certainly worth a watch as one of the more interesting television offerings in recent memory, standing out even in today’s exceptional television landscape. Simon has succeeded in telling Wasicsko and Yonkers’ story, and does so at a time of comparable social strife playing out on a national level. Parallels can be drawn from 1987 Yonkers to both the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement and the political race for the next presidency, as Barack Obama nears the end of his final term, and, if poll numbers are to be believed, may be yielding his position to a bloviating racist whose entire popular campaign sits atop violent, dated xenophobia.