Show Me A Hero is David Simon’s latest HBO foray into socially-conscious inner-city storytelling. After tackling the drug war in Baltimore in everyone’s favorite series The Wire and a post-Katrina New Orleans in the idiosyncratic and narrowly-focused Treme, Show Me A Hero may be his most daunting task, making the true story of a mayoral run in 1987 Yonkers, New York, and a subsequent squabble over government housing something that intrigues audiences. So far, so good, however, thanks to Oscar Isaac, the performances from some surprising supporting players, and a nimble screenplay.
Isaac is the draw here, playing Nick Wasicsko, a fresh-faced Mayoral candidate in Yonkers running against the incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi). The center of their campaign against each other involves court-ordered government housing that is scheduled to be dropped right in the middle of Yonkers’ more affluent (white) neighborhoods. The outspoken majority in Yonkers latch on to Nick’s promise to appeal the court order, while Martinelli rests on his history and eventually loses the office. This is the focus of Part I.
As Part I ends and Part II begins, it doesn’t take Nick long to realize city politics are a minefield of things out of his control. He loses the appeal day one, and looks to his advisors for help like a child who has been told Santa isn’t real. Aside from looking like the real-life Nick Wasicsko, Isaac is perfect for the role. His sad-eyed gaze and nervous energy capture a promising politician being eaten alive by the system.
Isaac is not the only draw in the story. Show Me A Hero is filled to the brim with wonderful talent, all helping breathe life into a series and a story that could fall flat much easier that it could build momentum. Belushi is patriarchal as Martinelli, Winona Ryder is Vinni Restiano, thick on accent and even thicker on precociousness. Jon Bernthal is an ACLU lawyer who isn’t as racially neutral as one would expect, and Alfrida Molina spits fire as Henry J. Spallone, a politician accusing the courts of social engineering with their insistence on the public housing.
Part II introduces us to Mary Dorman (Katherine Keener), who blossoms into the voice of the angry white Yonkers mob, insisting this is more about property values than racial lines. Nick continually looks and feels like an outsider to this world of angry WASPs, and the morality play in his decision to contest the public housing simply to win an election begins to weigh on his mind. Meanwhile, we get a look on the other side, the African-American community who’s streets go unchecked except for police presence, and the good people there who would benefit from a change of scenery.
It all works in concert in the story, weaving a dense tapestry of city politics that remains accessible thanks to Simon’s writing and fluid direction by Paul Haggis, who’s melodrama is kept in check. Simon has captured the look and feel of late-80s New York, all the way down to the Springsteen tracks that feel as if they were created specifically for this story. Show Me A Hero is, at least through two episodes, another notch in the belt of David Simon the inner-city narrator.