A timely, nuanced look at class and race through the prism of events that transpired more than a quarter-century ago, “Show Me a Hero” is a sobering, spare and meticulously crafted HBO miniseries. Although the subject matter — six hours devoted to the battle over public housing in Yonkers, N.Y. — won’t be for everyone, David Simon’s productions seldom are. Nevertheless, the pervasive quality and ambition, including Oscar Isaac’s central performance, rubs off on the pay network in a flattering way, feeling very much of a piece with the third season of “The Wire” in capturing the dysfunction of municipal politics.
For those who have lamented HBO’s latest batch of originals (so long, “True Detective”), “Hero” — being shown over three successive Sundays — comes at a propitious time, to the extent it represents the sort of exercise it’s hard to imagine another network bankrolling. Then again, Simon’s work, often bleakly tilted toward the darker side of American cities, is generally viewed as critic bait that appeals to a small if rarefied audience, which has made his relationship with the network a symbiotic one.
Here, the journalist-turned-writer/producer teams with William F. Zorzi and director Paul Haggis, adapting a book by Lisa Belkin whose title is derived from an F. Scott Fitzgerald line, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
Said tragedy begins in Yonkers during the late 1980s, where city officials are dealing with a court-mandated program to introduce 200 units of public housing in white neighborhoods. As modest as that sounds, the vehement resistance from the area’s residents makes the environment politically toxic, so much so that when young councilman Nick Wasicsko (Isaac) is convinced to run for mayor, he stumbles onto a campaign theme of resistance to the housing program that takes him from sacrificial lamb to unexpected victor.
Quickly, though, it’s clear the old maxim “Be careful what you wish for” applies, with Wasicsko realizing there’s no escaping the court’s order (pressure to appeal merely antagonizes the judge, played by Bob Balaban), which leads to threats and protests by citizens. Wasicsko is concerned enough to begin carrying a gun, while intransigent council members lead by Henry Spallone (Alfred Molina) continue to speak defiantly, digging in their heels and painting the young mayor into a corner.
“Nobody sensible would ever put themself through this,” Wasicsko mutters at one point, but clearly, he’s so bitten by the bug of politics that being sensible has long since left the building. In fact, his ongoing fight to remain politically viable becomes a central narrative thread, and puts a strain on his marriage, although the script by Simon and Zorzi casts a wide net, including the stories of those living in poor neighborhoods — for whom the homes could make an enormous difference — and white resident Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener, unrecognizable), whose arc of epiphany from vigorous opponent of the housing project to steadfast supporter is one the most surprising and satisfying.
Punctuated throughout with the songs of Bruce Springsteen, which seem perfectly appropriate given the time, place and tone, “Show Me a Hero” won’t be described by anyone as “fast paced.” Indeed, as good as it is — and it’s very good — one can argue that six hours is quite a commitment for something that frequently approximates cable-access coverage of local government.
Even so, one is gradually drawn in as the fact-based story wades ankle-deep into the drudgery and minutiae of council proceedings and public-housing strategies, the latter articulated by an expert planner (Peter Riegert) determined not to let the endeavor’s failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Without whitewashing the problems in the minority neighborhoods, the miniseries captures the underlying racial animus and apprehension motivating the homeowners, hidden behind coded language like “property values” and “liberty.” In that regard, it charts the continuation of the civil-rights movement into efforts to foster desegregation, from housing to busing.
The performances are uniformly strong, although Isaac’s is particularly interesting as almost a primer on the psychology of politics, and how much Wasicsko’s identity is derived from his desperate thirst for validation from voters. That includes regular chats with his father, and literally slugging Maalox from the bottle.
“Show Me a Hero” is that Fitzgerald-augured tragedy of sorts, but it’s not a story without hope — or laughs for that matter, including scene where a councilman objects to the housing project by saying, “Not in my backyard,” when the construction almost literally would be. That said, there’s an overarching theme to Simon’s work, and if this doesn’t represent the peak of his glory days, it’s praise enough to say it certainly belongs in that neighborhood.