The TV Room: Show Me a Hero, by David Bax
To describe HBO’s Show Me a Hero as a miniseries about the controversy surrounding low-income public housing in Yonkers, New York is technically correct with the added bonus of making it sound like Important Television. But it’s not exactly the kind of summary that’s going to set people running to their DVRs. Writer David Simon and director Paul Haggis (who have both tackled social issue melodrama before to varied success with The Wire and Crash) certainly have plenty say about racial and economic divides and the reasons they are maintained, in ways both malicious and otherwise. Still, they never lose sight of a simple truth. The best way to use filmmaking to make a point is to first and foremost practice good filmmaking.
Show Me a Hero, based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction book of the same name, tells the story of the housing issue chiefly through the story of Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac, a Yonkers City Council member who was elected to mayor on the strength of his opposition to the federally mandated housing but eventually became a champion of it, due to perhaps a change of heart or maybe political calculation or, most likely, some combination of the two.
Simon’s screenplay shows some sympathy for the middle class whites who oppose new public housing in their neighborhoods at first – these are people on safe and quiet streets who see the crime and dilapidation of existing projects and don’t want that where their children play and their dogs walk – but runs out of patience with those who remain intransigent in the face of further information and the inevitable fact that these houses are coming whether they want them or not. Simon separates the practical and compassionate opponents from those motivated by hatred or selfish interests. In the first camp is Catherine Keener’s housewife, Mary, who goes from shouting at protests to joining the committee to help ease the transition of the new residents. Her ultimate motivation remains the same – to preserve her neighborhood – and her open mind earns her new understanding and friendships. On the other side, though, are the people who spray paint racial slurs on the new buildings and show up to protests ranting about the Jewish federal judge or the politicians whose principles extend only as far as what will get them reelected.
Show Me a Hero’s most vital and rewarding choice, though, is to include the stories of some of those who will (or will not) be moving into these new units. Simon focuses on these characters as people in as full a sense as anyone else in the piece, which serves his point that the people most affected by public policy changes are often shamefully excluded from the conversation. In many cases, we the audience are allowed understand more about the decisions that may change their lives than they are, and far sooner. Haggis emphasizes the imbalance of power and representation by insisting on balance in every other way. He maintains a consistent color palette across the white characters’ stories and the minorities’, along with a confidently levelheaded use of medium shots and medium lenses. He mostly allows the screenplay to dictate the pace, which is a determined but careful one.
Haggis also succeeds in directing his actors, who give stellar performances. In addition to Isaac and Keener, we get Peter Riegert, Jim Belushi (in a small but vital role that may be the best work of his career), Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, Bob Balaban, Terry Kinney, Jon Bernthal, Bruce Altman and Clarke Peters. In a smart move that highlights the marginalization of the low-income minorities, he avoids casting name actors in those parts, with the most recognizable perhaps being The Wire’s Melanie Nicholls-King as the single mother of a pregnant teenager. Though the faces aren’t as familiar, the performances are just as strong.
In the end, the miniseries is less an examination of issues and more an overall portrait of the life of one American city in the late twentieth century. With the exception of an unnecessary, recurring tease of a flash forward that fails to pay off, Haggis’ approach is reserved and assured. Let’s not think of Show Me a Hero as an extra credit assignment but as a mature, engrossing drama. It deserves that, as do the people whose stories are being told.