SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD
In his new HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” David Simon (“The Wire”) turns academic debates over subsidized housing into six gripping hours of historical fiction.
Adapted from Lisa Belkin’s eponymous nonfiction book, “Hero” takes the action back to the late 1980s, when a federal judge ruled that 200 units of affordable housing were required to be built in the predominantly-white section of East Yonkers, NY. Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is the story’s main player, a young politician who skyrocketed to mayor by campaigning against the initiative, only to find that embracing it was the only way to govern.
“Show Me a Hero” understands politics as it is most purely defined: “Of, for, or relating to citizens.” Simon voraciously digs into the nuance of policy debate, and there remains the wide-ranging wisdom on race and class that made “The Wire” so indelible. But “Hero,” co-written by former political reporter William F. Zorzi, dramatizes policy with more depth. It shifts within and without the halls of Yonkers’ governing elite, elucidating what it means, precisely, to enact a progressive agenda.
Alongside Waciscko’s rocky political career, we peer into the lives of four single women who live in the projects on the other side of town: Doreen (a superb Natalie Paul), a young widow who develops a drug addiction; Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), an elderly nurse going blind; Billie (Dominique Fishback), a pregnant teenager tasked with building a family; and Alma (Ilfenesh Hadera), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic fearing for her children’s safety.
In the series’ first half, these smaller-scale stories cannot quite click into place, progressing dutifully and intermittently. But they also compliment and enliven the political processes in surprising ways, eventually building to form the production’s crux. Through the struggles of characters such as Doreen and Alma, a wonky debate over housing regulations evolves into a powerful dramatic idea: the right to a home.
This is central to “Show Me a Hero,” as political and humanistic narratives consciously converge. Waciscko’s career trajectory serves as the backdrop. He runs a campaign against the housing initiative, promising to “appeal the court” – soon proved to be an impossible task – as appeasement for the many angry white Yonkers voters who are resistant to change. He wins on that issue, becoming the country’s youngest mayor at 28.
But Nick Wasicsko, as Simon protagonists tend to be, is rigidly political – he is not idealistic, only responding to voters. This is key. As directed by Oscar winner Paul Haggis (“Crash”), the series’ earliest episodes are propulsively involving, with anti-housing residents loudly clamoring in the chambers. Haggis’ rendering of the crowds, as their pleas and screams roar and echo, is viscerally authentic. He hovers over them, capturing their collective intensity and juxtaposing their anger with the helpless, near-indifferent politicians fielding their questions.
It makes for enormously effective direction, and more importantly is crucial to the story’s success. Early on, there’s talk of redistricting and pandering – Winona Ryder plays a moderate councilwoman voted out due to gerrymandering – and the volatile atmosphere urges a contention with these topics on more pragmatic terms. Wasicsko is young, and he uses constituents’ misplaced rage to his advantage; later, an extreme right-wing figure (played deliciously by Alfred Molina) condenses it into a Tea Party-like movement. This is a beast that Wasicsko helped to create, and just as he’s learned how to govern and prioritize, the beast takes him down.
In that way, “Show Me a Hero” hones in on our own ability to limit the function of government. The rise and fall of Wasicsko speaks intriguingly, and cynically, to our current culture of gridlock and partisanship. But there’s a sneaky optimism to “Show Me a Hero” as well. It grapples with the possibilities of change on both systemic and individualistic scales.
Consider the journey of Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), an East Yonkers resident vehemently opposed to the affordable housing project. Politicians present themselves as on her side, but after proving their electability they fail to move the anti-housing needle even an inch. She confronts her fears upon the realization that her government has slid into an inalterable realm of empty promises.
Mary, “Hero’s” most central supporting character, is placed alongside Wasicsko, a man she felt betrayed her but who similarly evolves in thought. Their imperfections are the very heart of Simon’s intent, exploring a viciously won but ultimately fatal political battle in which there were no true heroes or villains.
Isaac, brilliantly expressive here, occupies that moral middle ground. He inhabits Waciscko with quiet vulnerability and the suave of a great politician. Even in the densest of political conversations, he is connective and raw.
Keener, meanwhile, is handed a character of far fewer words but also of utmost relatability. She plays into Mary’s emotions fully, somehow making her prejudice almost beside the point. She gives a remarkably intelligent performance, with so much communicated in isolated glances. “Hero” occasionally pits Mary and Nick against one another, whether on a brief phone-call or in a nighttime pass-by. Between the performances and what these characters stand for, there’s always so much there – a reminder of Simon’s chief interest in people, and how they relate to bigger ideas.
In “Show Me a Hero,” Simon situates an intimately American idea – what it means to own and have a home – in an aggressively complex exploration of political process and systemic change. This is not Simon’s best work – as mentioned earlier, early episodes are disjointed – but it may be his most intellectually challenging. His final message is more thematically varied than what he typically opts for, as although the political culture in “Hero” emerges as corrosive and intractable – Waciscko’s fate bluntly, tragically reflects this – within it we see pivotal evolutions in policy and in people.
There may be no heroes or villains here, but there is David Simon: our time’s eminent documenter of tragedy, hope and their forever uneasy co-existence.
The six-hour miniseries is streaming on HBOGo.