Nobody does television like David Simon, and there’s no bettter, more appropriate time to screen his 2015 miniseries Show Me a Hero than now. This first-rate HBO production chronicles a contentious political fight to desegregate neighborhoods and build public housing in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s, and it’s another gripping, insightful mosaic about racism, political gridlock, and systemic injustice. It slots into Simon’s oeuvre perfectly alongside previous accomplishments Homicide: Life in the Street, The Wire, and Treme.
In 1987, the city council of Yonkers loses a contentious court battle and is ordered to comply with a government order. The city must build new low-income housing, and not in the projects, but spread out in traditional middle-class neighborhoods. This creates a public outcry amongst the city’s white reactionaries, whose “concern for property values” fails to conceal obvious racism. Nonetheless, their angry protests motivate the council, including young first-term councilman Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), to resist the order. Long-time Mayor Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) sees the fight as lost and plans to submit to the court order, but Wasicsko sees an opportunity to parlay his anti-public housing stance into a mayoral election strategy. What he doesn’t foresee is that by winning, he’ll be saddled with the political headaches of actually executing the order once resistance inevitably fails — which makes him a target of both vicious political opposition, and the ugly, racist backlash of the constituents who put him into office.
Based on a book by Lisa Belkin, Show Me a Hero follows in the footsteps of Homicide by dramatizing the real-life people and events of a nonfiction book, and it does so with aplomb. Although, as in most of Simon’s shows, the diverse viewpoint is spread across several characters, there’s an unusual dominance to one person’s story this time: that of Nick Wasicsko. It’s another feather in Oscar Isaac’s career cap, to say the least; he plays Wasicsko as a charming opportunist, whose moral grasp of the issues is often clouded by personal ambition. Wasicsko’s journey from rising star to embattled political veteran, from fervent anti-public housing candidate to reluctant advocate, provides plenty of meaty dramatic material. Isaac pulls it off brilliantly, with just the right mix of likeable accessibility and cringeworthy selfishness. Is he truly a hero? Simon and co-writer William Zorzi don’t make a case one way or the other, shining light on qualities and flaws both.
Nor are they focused entirely on the city hall politics and the people in power. They spread their storytelling, and plenty of day-to-day heroism, amongst the many disadvantaged people for whom the new houses become a source of hope and change. From troubled single mother Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), to legally blind home health aide Norma O’Neill (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), to Dominican Republic immigrant Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), and more, we’re shown the perspectives of those for whom the housing is such an important and necessary development — and how it’s far from enough of an initiative to solve the systemic problems that make them necessary. And then there’s Mary Dorman (the great Catherine Keener), an anti-housing activist whose civic involvement eventually, gradually shifts her opinions. Her journey is less central, but far more transformative, than the protagonist’s.
Show Me a Hero is, like most Simon TV, dark stuff — necessarily so. But it’s encoded, perhaps, with a little more hope than usual, even as it exposes systemic rot — and critically reflects the American race turmoil that stubbornly persists to this day. (It’s telling that one of Wasicsko’s major political foes, Hank Spallone, is played by Alfred Molina as if channeling Donald Trump in all his bullying, single-minded glory.) The supporting cast is rounded out expertly by Jon Bernthal, Clarke Peters, Carla Quevedo, Peter Riegert, Winona Ryder, and more, and the film is gorgeously shot by Paul Haggis. In other words, it’s the complete package, full of heart, intelligence, and important, careful messaging — yet another moving and immersive story from one of TV’s greatest auteur voices.