When you tout a TV miniseries with the names David Simon and Paul Haggis alongside such keywords as “public housing,” “racial tension,” “the late ’80s,” “Yonkers” and throw in what sounds to be most of Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue, it’s understood that half the room will greet it with reverent enthusiasm. The other half might react as if they’ve just been handed a menu consisting only of kale. Is it really a six-part movie about the struggle to build 200 units of public housing?
It is, and it’s brilliant. HBO’s “Show Me a Hero,” which premieres Sunday night and continues in two-hour chunks Aug. 23 and 30, is a subtle and deeply effective melding of art and conscience; from its writing and narrative pace to its outstanding performances (particularly that of its star, Oscar Isaac) the miniseries locates a seldom-found sweet spot between storytelling and moralism. It doesn’t suffocate on its own good intentions; instead it works because of its ambiguities — much like the tone of Simon’s masterwork, “The Wire.” As the title strongly suggests, there are no real heroes in this particular situation.
Simon has been drawn to this story since former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction book of the same name came out 1999; he has said he first pitched it to HBO long before he made “The Wire,” “Generation Kill” or “Treme.”
Now, writing with William F. Zorzi and drawing in Haggis (of the Oscar-winning “Crash”) to direct, Simon has landed on an uncannily relevant moment to revisit the true story of a federal court order to build low-income housing on the east side of Yonkers in the late 1980s, where at the time eight out of 10 residents were white. An ugly and racist dispute followed as longtime residents complained about property values and bitterly resisted any plan to acquiesce to the court.
The furor was a political disaster for Nick Wasicsko (Isaac), an ambitious 28-year-old city councilman who was elected mayor of Yonkers in 1988 just as the housing decision came to a contentious boil — much to the delight of Wasicsko’s political rivals. With apoplectic constituents screaming at him (egged on by a vaingloriously bigoted councilman, Henry J. “Hank” Spallone, played here with slick contempt by Alfred Molina), Wasicsko soon became a helpless, Maalox-swilling wreck. “Show Me a Hero” is primarily interested in his journey as a flawed protagonist who discovers an inner resolve to stand up to his friends and neighbors.
Things got so bad that federal judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) imposed a punishing fine on Yonkers that quickly added up to $1 million for every day the city council members kept stalling. (The opposing council members also were personally fined.)
“Show Me a Hero” is indebted to Belkin’s original book for the beauty of its dogged reporting; it’s not often that a film drama about an actual event hews this close to journalism, to such a degree that it includes the personal stories of residents who won the initial housing lottery and became the first tenants of the new housing.
It’s in these stories where “Show Me a Hero” really begins to flourish, even though it could have leaned mainly on Isaac’s performance to carry a quicker, two-hour piece of political portraiture. “Show Me a Hero” extends its fascination for flawed humanity to the gritty projects, where characters are not merely anecdotes. That’s why it takes six worthwhile hours to tell.
Among the residents are four resilient women who actually existed. Norma O’Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is a 47-year-old nurse and lifelong projects resident who is facing diabetes-related blindness; Billie Rowan (Dominique Fishback) is a defiant teenager who falls for a budding criminal who fathered her two children. Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) is lured into addiction during the full spread of the crack epidemic; another neighbor, Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), is a single working mom desperate to find a safer place to raise her children.
None of these characters are depicted in easy shades of ennobled poverty, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to “Wire” or “Treme” fans. A viewer is drawn to their stories because of their mistakes and begins to understand them on a level beyond pity. Hours after I’d finished watching Part 6, I was still wondering about these women, their children and grandchildren.
That’s the very sort of empathy that was lacking in Yonkers 25 years ago. “Show Me a Hero’s” smartest move is to zero in on a societal shift, personified in one Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), an older East Yonkers resident who travels the entire circumference of this fight over several years — first as a homeowner who joins the protests and later as a disillusioned voter who gets a rare opportunity to know her new neighbors.
In contrast to the bluster and manic passion Isaac displays as Wasicsko, Keener’s performance is a subtly wounded and nearly perfect portrayal of the experience of letting go of long-held prejudices.
Though he was a runner-up for a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, Wasicsko’s clout with voters never recovered. Near the end of this tale, he runs for lesser offices, capitulating to rivals he helped elect, hoping they will return the favor; he even turns on his oldest allies, including council member Vincenza “Vinni” Restiano, played by Winona Ryder. (By the way: They keep letting male actors of the ’80s and ’90s have all kinds of comebacks — so where, I wonder, is our long-overdue Winonaissance? She’s completely terrific in this and seems ready to carry a dramatic series. Get on it, Hollywood.)
“You can’t confuse votes with love,” Restiano tells Wasicsko, underscoring one of “Show Me a Hero’s” clearest themes. Wasicsko’s story is a cautionary tale about the sometimes poisonous lure of politics. But “Show Me a Hero’s” real lesson is this: No matter how many times someone spray-painted the N-word on the construction site, the new low-income townhouses got built anyhow. The residents moved in with gratitude, courage and optimism. And lo and behold, the world did not end.
Show Me a Hero (two hours) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO; continues Aug. 23 and 30.