The recently concluded 6-part HBO mini-series, “Show Me A Hero,” is vital, important filmmaking – an engrossing, frustrating, and at times heart-breaking masterpiece. Its’ power lies in its’ approach to the material – a true story told through the actions of real people inhabiting and politicking in Yonkers, NY in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. This story unfolds with no judgment or editorial bias; there are no heroes or villains necessarily, so what emerges are astute perceptions about human nature and responsibility to fellow man, themes of morality, abject bigotry, and cutthroat politics on the local, municipality level.
The plot ostensibly follows the political career of Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, who has quickly proven to be an actor to follow – his character portrayals are layered, complex, and riveting), a young man who rockets through the ranks of Yonkers politics and whose career was intrinsically linked to the public housing battle that raged through this city just north of NYC. For years, Yonkers was able to curry a segregationist approach to public housing, in affect creating pockets of living areas (‘The Projects’) that became undesirable to all except for the drug dealers and miscreants who used the public, un-owned areas of these buildings (courtyards, elevators, hallways, etc.) to ply their nefarious wares. When the city is ordered by the federal government to build more units and integrate them amongst existing, ‘white’, neighborhoods, the constituency takes a decidedly negative approach to support, making this singular issue the reasoning behind every council and mayoral election.
There are many players involved in this portrayal, both on the political and residential sides, all cast with care and an eye for authenticity. Familiar faces and unknowns make up this ensemble cast, with not a bad character beat in the bunch. While the series is designed to avoid any one particular character/actor overshadowing the rest, there are a few standouts – Alfred Molina captures the bluster and stubbornness of Hank Spallone, Catherine Keener loses herself in the role of Mary Dorman (a vocal opponent of change), newcomers Natalie Paul and Ilfenesh Hadera handle the tricky arcs of projects residents Doreen Henderson and Carmen Febles respectively, avoiding the easy pitfall of saint or sinner based on their actions. The clothes, cars, and accents are convincing, transporting the viewer to a time and place in relative recent history.
It probably should come as no surprise that a leading creative mind behind this series is David Simon, here applying his ear for authenticity to Yonkers and its’ residents just as he did so well for Baltimore in his incredible HBO series, “The Wire.” He and Willian F. Zorzi adapt the meticulously researched book by Lisa Belkin, assuredly taking care that no one comes out unscathed. This warts-and-all production also benefits by maintaining a unifying look and feel through the efforts of director Paul Haggis, who helms all six episodes. He shoots purposely from the vantage point of the crowd in the heated council meeting scenes, where all semblance of the proceedings are drowned out by the ranting of the gathered public. Unlike his over-rated, preachy Oscar-winning film, ‘Crash,’ Haggis is able to present this material without neat contrivance. It’s obvious that all those involved in this production understood the need to present this material with the respect it deserves.
If this all sounds kind of dire and heavy, it is, but like all great works, it is also absolutely riveting from start to finish with involving characters, uneasy situations, and subtly devastating scenes of both elation and sorrow. This is not simply entertainment, something to put on to pass the time, it is food for the soul and the mind – the rare master class of perfect writing, direction, and acting that truly transcends . . .
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A+