A six-part miniseries about the battle to locate 200 units of public housing in East Yonkers, N.Y., is evidence that television has only begun to explore its potential.
“Show Me a Hero,” created by David Simon (“The Wire”) and directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”), courageously defies convention at every turn, making us work to buy into its multiple story lines. But that initial work pays off with an emotional release that lives up to the Scott Fitzgerald line from which the title is taken: “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” The miniseries premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Based on actual events, with a stunning script by William F. Zorzi and Simon, from the book by Lisa Belkin, “Hero” begins in 1987 as Yonkers is slapped with court mandate to build public housing. Many residents are ready to fight the court order with everything they’ve got, as are members of the city’s political establishment, including young Councilman Nicholas Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) who successfully challenges Mayor Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi) for re-election. Wasicsko and other local pols try every way to challenge the mandate from Judge Leonard Burke Sand (Bob Balaban), but hit a brick wall every time.
Meanwhile, city residents are stepping up their rancor. Some politicians, like Councilman Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina), pander to the rabble and promise an impossible victory against the court order. But Wasicsko and a few others reluctantly realize they have to abide by the court’s decree. As long as the city drags its feet, the court has imposed a heavy fine which would eventually bankrupt the city.
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Local politicians and the courts aren’t the only players in this tug o’ war. Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal) is on hand on behalf of the NAACP to help get the units built, as is architect Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert) who advocates for a policy of “defensible space” in public housing planning.
Are you nodding off yet? I can’t blame you. It sounds as dry as dust, but in the hands of Simon and Haggis, it’s increasingly gripping as the story of the housing fight is told through exploration of the characters of the players, including several people who desperately need better housing but don’t have the income to pay for it.
Norma O’Neal (La Tanya Richardson Jackson) is a woman in her late 40s who works as a home health aide but is losing her eyesight. She’s the one who needs help now, but even when it is forthcoming from the government, health aides are too afraid to come to the projects where she lives.
Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) is a young single mother with a drug problem. She thinks she can still be a good mother, but drugs inevitably take control of her life.
Carmen Reyes (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a Dominican-born single mother of three kids. She works long hours just to keep the kids fed.
Simon, Haggis and Zorzi build the story slowly, meticulously. We see small acts of courage, and many acts of weakness and self-aggrandizement. The one thing we don’t see, for a very long time, is a hero.
Wasicsko may not back down against the ever-present angry mob of longtime residents, but his determination to see the housing units built is about having no other choice, and about trying to manipulate things as much as possible to preserve and grow his own political career.
Certainly Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) is no hero – not at first, anyway. She’s among the most vocal opponents of the housing project. She doesn’t see the racism behind her statements that it’s about lifestyles. Her friend Jack O’Toole (Steven Gevedon), an even greater foe of the housing plan, doesn’t use racial epithets, but talks about the need for people to live where they can afford to live. It’s the metaphor of intrinsic racism.
In one of several Emmy-worthy performances in the miniseries, Keener makes Dorman the touchstone the story, as she constructs an ordinary woman whose values and beliefs are largely unexamined and derive from a lack of exposure to alternative ways of thinking. At heart, she is not an evil person, just fearful of what she doesn’t know.
Her moment of enlightenment is so beautifully written and performed, the scene should be preserved as an example of absolute perfection. Mary is sweeping snow off her sidewalk, arguing about the protests. You can feel her struggling to balance her traditional beliefs with what she’s learning about the people who would become her neighbors. With her newly acquired knowledge, she’s beginning to ask the purpose of all this fear and hate? “We just keep sweeping the same sidewalk,” she says.
Keener’s is only one of the truly great performances that make “Hero” compelling in spite of its deceptively dry subject matter, especially early on – once you buy into the characters, you’re hooked.
Isaac’s performance is monumental because he’s called upon to play someone who is slowly imploding and terrified of failure. Like so many of the characters, Wasicsko is motivated by fear as much as the longtime residents who want outsiders to stay that way.
David Simon’s extraordinary miniseries does live up to the complete meaning of Fitzgerald’s observation. It is ultimately a tragic story, with an enormously moving emotional payoff at the end. The finale will move you, perhaps to tears.
Never for a moment will you doubt that the housing units will be built, but that’s not really what “Hero” is all about. It’s about what motivates our divisive views of race and, in a larger sense, of people who aren’t like us. Wasicsko puts in well in a seemingly offhand remark, that “Underneath it all, it’s fear. Same as it ever was.”
Same as it ever was, then and, sadly, now.