Sunday, August 16, 2015

REVIEW: 'Show Me a Hero' - Nick Wasicsko Gets Elected, Then Deals with the Outcry Against Public Housing in 'Parts 1 & 2'

HBO's Show Me a Hero - Episode 1.01 "Part 1" & 1.02 "Part 2"

Nick Wasicsko becomes the youngest big-city mayor in America. Even before he is inaugurated, the obligation to build public housing in the white neighborhoods of Yonkers looms over his new administration. All hell breaks loose when an ultimatum is given by a federal judge weary of further delays. Public housing residents watch and wait as the white residents of East Yonkers make clear just how opposed they are.

Show Me a Hero is a very interesting story to center a six hour miniseries around. So much of the action happens in city council meetings or in a courtroom where the main players argue and argue again over the same issue. The judge in this case threatens to find the city of Yonkers and the members of the city council in contempt so many times over the course of these opening two hours. And yet, so much of the storytelling works so remarkably well because of the writing, direction and performances. This is a captivating story as told by David Simon and William F. Zorzi, shown by Paul Haggis and portrayed by Oscar Isaac and the rest of the phenomenal cast. The topic of public housing is a very important issue to a city and its citizens. All sides of this argument are passionate about the topic. Each side is able to be heard through the storytelling as well. That creates a discussion that thrives in chaos - something that the entire creative team handles exceptionally well.

Isaac is just so magnetic as Mayor Nick Wasicsko. Over the course of these first two episodes, he rises in the ranks from a first time councilman to Mayor of Yonkers, New York. He won because he was able to use this very sensitive issue against incumbent Mayor Martinelli. The public housing debate got him elected. But it's also the thing that plagues his administration before it ever begins. The first hour shows him rising in popularity. He was someone the citizens of Yonkers noticed overnight because of how vocal he got about the public housing issue. He was a young candidate who would have been able to bounce back if he lost the mayoral race. He was out campaigning on the streets himself and people didn't want to listen to anything he had to say. He didn't know how to run a campaign or get the city's interest. Circumstances happened that made him get noticed. He made some hefty promises on the campaign trail. That's what led to his election. But the actual job was never going to be as easy as he promised to the citizens of Yonkers. Even when he was just the mayor-elect, he knew that the appeal on this case had no merits.

That essentially meant that Nick would have to backtrack and start supporting the building of 200 units of public housing immediately. The judge put a clock on all the decision making. The new city council was composed of different people. But the same outcome occurred. Councilman Spallone stayed consistent with his opposition to the plan - to the point where he would have to spend some time in jail for contempt with a $500 a day fine. But the story was so immediately fascinating because it was told through Nick's eyes. This is a man who has always wanted to be Mayor. He was able to say something and have it come true. He wanted to be Mayor and he became Mayor. He wanted Nay to be his wife and he won her over with his charm. He was forced to obey the law by the judge. He simply could not win over the crowd that has assembled before the city council.

They are a crowd who are passionate about this issue. They all claim not to be racists. Their reasons for voicing their opinions against this plan is because they don't want their property values to decrease as a result nor do they want their neighborhoods to turn into gang territory. That's an understandable approach to this issue. But just because they are able to be vocal about this concern doesn't make them civilized. The crowded moments across these two episodes are the show at its absolute best. Those crowd scenes allow for a true sense of passion and chaos. They will not be silent just because the Mayor bangs the gavel. They are angry and upset that the members of the city council are not doing what they promised to do during the election. They are trying to make them accountable for their words and actions. It's an onslaught of public outcry that leads to more inaction by the council. They remain deadlocked on this deal despite the numerous threats the judge has imposed on them.

Nick did have the noble vision of actually listening to the citizens of Yonkers during his administration as their mayor. And yet, he is slowly being beaten down and defeated over the issue that got him to this position. He needs to uphold the law. But that comes at a great personal cost to him. He has to seem compliant to the judge's ruling while not being actively passionate about the deal. It's a strategy that doesn't really work at all. He still has the love and support of Nay. But that's not enough to save him from the outcry of the people around him. Those people may be prone to mass hysteria. Some even go so far as to say that the entire reason this is happening is because of the Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. That's not a well-informed opinion. And yet, the opinions of the opposition are able to take voice through Catherine Keener's resident Mary. She grows more passionate about this issue as the episodes progress. She supports the church even after it gets caught up in this mess. She's still against public housing. But she's also well articulate about it. Sure, she wasn't expecting to get Nick on the phone. She thought her shouting at the public forum was the closest she would ever get to that. But during that phone call the two of them heard just how complicated this situation actually is.

And then, there are the people on the other side of this argument. The people who actually live in the public housing. They don't have a voice at all during the scenes that take place in the council meetings. They are struggling just to support themselves and their families in an unsafe environment. Those little glimpses into the lives of these citizens isn't the best part of these opening episodes. They don't strongly connect to anything that's happening in the courtroom battles elsewhere in the city. And yet, these are the people whose lives will be effected the most by this case. That makes them a crucial part of this story. They are just people who don't have a voice amongst the chaos. That doesn't mean they aren't important. But right now, no one is listening to them. The judge and the NAACP lawyers are fighting on their behalf. But they are frequently seen as the enemies in this battle forcing the people of Yonkers to comply to something that they don't want. It's a balance that is off. The people who are the loudest are the ones getting their way at the moment. Things will probably get even more tragic before they get better. But that's what makes this story so tense and thrilling to watch.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Parts 1 & 2" were written by William F. Zorzi & David Simon and directed by Paul Haggis.
  • Part 1 opens in February 1987 and covers most of the year as the election determines the outcome of the public housing debate. Part 2 then opens with January 1988 where the new city council is no more capable of actually doing something than the one that preceded it.
  • I'm expecting big things to come soon with Vinni Restiano, a councilwoman who was for the deal but then lost her seat on the council and is currently adrift in her life because of it. That feeling mostly comes from the fact that Winona Ryder is playing the role.
  • Alfred Molina sure is hamming it up as Councilman Spallone, the most vocal member on the city's board against the deal. It's a very crucial character to the piece and Molina remains a fantastic actor. It may just be a tad too much.
  • Will former Mayor Martinelli ever pop up again? Jim Belushi is a recognizable enough actor to give gravitas to the role in its limited capacity. But he's also an actor one hires for more than just one episode.
  • It's interesting to see Nick slowly open himself up to the idea of talking to his father's grave. It was something he was hesitant to do at first. But as the series progressed, he found himself growing more tense by the case and more willing to actually talk about how disastrous this whole administration has actually become.