Should you ever begin to believe that people are, at the bottom of it, good or decent, allow HBO’s new miniseries “Show Me a Hero” to serve as a corrective. Based on the 1999 account of what happened when Yonkers, N.Y., was forced to integrate in the late 1980s, the David Simon-penned, Paul Haggis-directed six hours prove that in American politics, even those doing the right thing are often doing it for the wrong reason.
The miniseries’ ostensible hero should be Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the country’s youngest elected mayor at the time, who ran on a platform of opposing the public housing. But shortly after taking office, the city’s attorneys confirmed that resistance was hopeless; Yonkers would have no choice but to comply. More a pragmatist than a realist–the city was facing fines of up to a million dollars a day–Wasicsko fought to make the integrated housing as smooth as possible and was voted out of office after one term as reward.
The series is divided into roughly three equal parts: the city council wrangling and political machinations; the men and women whose lives could be improved by access to the new public housing; and the grassroots opposition to building the housing in predominately white areas.
That the latter is mostly seen through the eyes (and owlish glasses) of Catherine Keener’s Mary Dorman makes it both the prickliest and most memorable. There are moments during contentious city council meetings, when the crowds are screaming for Mayor Wasicsko to fight the courts or at least resign, that show how easy mass hysteria can induce level-headed men and women to lash out; Yonkers in 1988 might as well have been Salem in 1692. Mary, who has already criticized her fellow protestors for making the public housing issue one of race (she’s more concerned about plummeting property values), suddenly rushes the railing in the courtroom. “Your father would be ashamed,” she bellows at Mayor Wasicsko. That, as it happens, touches a nerve; Simon and Haggis have taken great pains to put Wasicsko at his father’s grave as often as possible in some extremely heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Those graveside scenes are the exception, though. For the most part, “Show Me a Hero” revels in small, telling moments that say as much about human nature as how the American people perceive politics and politicians. Mary calling the mayor’s office, not expecting him to answer because political figures aren’t necessarily real people; Wasiscko stopping by the newly built townhouses like a paternalistic white savior to delight in the existence of something he fought for, only to be turned away with suspicion; a female home care worker navigating the complexities of an elevator in the projects.
Keener brings every scene she’s in to life, but it’s Isaac who carries the miniseries. He’s pushy and ambitious and ultimately defeated and broken, as much by the political realities of his particular time and place as by what begins to seem an almost obsessive addiction to public office. He’s ably aided by stellar supporting turns from Alfred Molina as his staunchest rival; Carla Quevedo as Wasiscko’s wife; Winona Ryder as a Yonkers politician who spends most of her time drinking and listening to Wasiscko; and LaTonya Richardson Jackson as a blind woman who lives in the increasingly dangerous projects.
Jackson, in particular, is superb; the other women representing the lives of the projects’ inhabitants can veer too close to two-dimensional (the single mother; the crack addict; the one who can’t leave her bad boyfriend), but Jackson’s quiet, controlled performance towers above them all. You watch her and then you see the vitriol inspired by her possible arrival in the white part of town, and you wonder how anything ever gets done at all. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the line that provided this miniseries with its title: “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
“Show Me a Hero” premieres Sunday, Aug. 16 at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.