TV Review: Show Me A Hero
PLOT: The true story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) who – during his late eighties/early-nineties tenure – found himself pitted against the rest of the city when he tried to enforce a federally-mandated demand for a public housing development.
REVIEW: It’s crazy how many people only got into David Simon’s The Wire after the fact. Heck, I’m one of them. When it was still on HBO, nobody watched. Now that it’s off the air, it’s considered such a classic that courses are being taught about it at Harvard. In the years since, show runner David Simon has kept himself busy with Treme – which ran for a few seasons on HBO and had a small but loyal following. Now he’s back with an incredibly ambitious mini-series that once again proves HBO is the place for smart, adult-drama with feature-quality production values.
Running six hours and cut up into one hour episodes that run back-to-back two hours at a time the next three Sundays, SHOW ME A HERO is thoroughly compelling. Mixing Simon’s trademark social conscience with a somewhat more mainstream flair courtesy of director Paul Haggis (who doesn’t have a writing credit), SHOW ME A HERO really lives up to the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote it’s named after: “show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”
While it boasts an incredible ensemble, Show Me a Hero is through-and-through Wasicsko’s story, with Oscar Isaac giving the performance of a life-time in the lead. A complicated man, SHOW ME A HERO expertly explores how Wasicsko, in a fit of ego, played the race card to get himself elected as the youngest mayor in America but then made a complete reversal both out of a need to comply with the courts (resistance would have bankrupted the city) and a sense of morality. The argument at the heart of SHOW ME A HERO is tricky. Residents of Yonkers fought tooth-and-nail to keep the city from putting up public housing, ostensibly due to a fear of crime and a drop in the real estate value of their property but also likely due to racism, although to its credit no one is overly demonized or celebrated.
While a hero, Isaac plays Wasicsko as egotistical and conniving when he needs to be, less out of a need for power and more out of an effort to stay politically solvent, with city politics being depicted as a kind of addiction that’s tough to quit. One scene early on finds Wasicsko comforting a former councilwoman (Winona Ryder in a standout performance) who comes off her run in politics like an alcoholic gone dry. All of this makes his eventual stand all the more heroic, even if he had no choice at all in the matter, as the city would have been bankrupted in weeks by the million-dollar-a-day fines levied on the city for their public housing non-compliance.
The closest we get to a villain in Alfred Molina’s oily council member, who tries to destroy Wasicsko in a bid to become mayor himself, promising resisters that he’ll fight the housing decision, even though that’s something he knows is impossible. Yet, the side resisting the public housing is also humanized through Catherine Keener’s subtle, affecting performance as a middle-class housewife who demonstrates against Wasicsko even though she personally likes him (with a climatic phone call between the two at the end of part two being the mini’s signature moment). Other character parts are played by Peter Riegert, Jim Belushi (excellent), an unrecognizable Jon Bernthal, The Wire’s Clarke Peters and others.
Like Simon’s other work, this mini isn’t soley concerned with politics, with a good chunk of time being devoted to the lives of the eventual public housing inhabitants. Everyone is portrayed humanely, but also accurately with some being shown to make horrible decisions that jeopardize their potential place in the development, while others fight to get a chance at a better life. One especially moving performance comes from veteran actress LaTanya Richardson-Jackson as an older woman going blind. This makes her a shoo-in for the project, but her fears of being cut off from the only community she knows also resonate.
One thing SHOW ME A HERO isn’t is a rehash of The Wire Season 3, which also explored city politics in detail. Wasicsko’s (mostly) a hero here, and Isaac’s performance suggests an edgier Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Much time is spent on his home life, and the relationship between him and his city hall staffer wife (exquisitely played by THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES’ Carla Quevedo) is among the most compelling screen romances I’ve seen in years. All these amazing performances coupled with Simon’s ear for gritty dialogue (the script is co-authored by his Wire collaborator William Zorzi ) and an amazing song-score made up mostly of classic Bruce Springsteen tracks makes this a TV event unlike anything we’ve seen in a while. If this were a feature it would be up for best picture at the Oscars and Oscar Isaac would take home best actor– that’s the quality-level we’re talking about here. Don’t miss out. This is a mini that demands to be seen and should reach as broad an audience as possible. Like The Wire, you won’t only be entertained, but you’ll also learn something too.
|Extra Tidbit:||SHOW ME A HERO premieres Sunday night on HBO.|