Good performances by many fine actors, but the series -- as an emotionally engaging experience -- never takes off.
THE MINISERIES "Show Me a Hero"
WHEN | WHERE Starts Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on Lisa Belkin's 1999 nonfiction account of the housing desegregation battle in Yonkers during the '80s, this six-part miniseries stars Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") as Nick Wasicsko, a Yonkers councilman who promises to appeal U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand's (Bob Balaban) order to build a thousand units of low-income housing on the white side of town. Wasicsko runs for mayor, and beats longtime incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), becoming -- in 1988 -- the youngest mayor (28) of a large U.S. city. But confronted by an unyielding Sand, he reverses himself, then battles angry constituents and another councilman, Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina), who also promises to appeal. It's directed by Paul Haggis ("Crash"), from a script by David Simon ("The Wire") and Bill Zorzi (who were longtime colleagues at the Baltimore Sun).
This six-hour film ends with the suicide of Wasicsko, on Oct. 29, 1993.
"Show Me a Hero" is also filled with portraits of people who will one day move into the completed housing units.
Simon and Zorzi first began developing this film 15 years ago, then Simon put it aside for another little project that HBO ordered -- "The Wire."
MY SAY "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy..."
The well-rubbed line is from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but for the purposes of both the book and the miniseries adaptation, only the first part remains. Standing on its own, the phrase becomes sharp and demanding -- a gauntlet thrown down, as if to say: Go ahead,show me a hero, if you can find one in this story.
Simon, Zorzi and Isaac don't exactly locate a hero in Wasicsko but they do find the tragedy. In their estimation, he's a fundamentally decent guy blinded by his own unrelenting ambition. More of a pragmatist than ideologue, he says what voters want to hear -- that he will appeal -- and promptly reverses his campaign promise when the consequences of appeal lead to potential bankruptcy. He loses his re-election bid, then spends the next four years of his life trying to get his seat back at the table.
In the miniseries, right before he takes his life, he breaks down in tears. Face wracked, his eyes desperately searching for something he can't see, Isaac turns in a singularly powerful moment.
It is, in fact, the only one over six hours.
Paradoxically, the problem with "Show Me a Hero" -- strictly from a viewer perspective -- is that Simon and Zorzi are simply too competent as journalists to make up something out of whole cloth. They abide by the record as it stands, and the record is one of endless board meetings, yelling crowds, an angry judge making pronouncements, followed by more board meetings, more yelling, more pronouncements . . . And then they do it all over again. There's a numbing circularity to the story and circles tend to get old, fast.
Moreover, Isaac's Wasicsko isn't portrayed as an idealist who wants to expunge a history of segregation and racism in the city he comes to lead, but rather a politician who will do what it takes to win. The tragedy of his short career is that by simply doing the right thing -- and the responsible one -- he ended it.
The best parts of "Show Me a Hero" are the sharply drawn mini-portraits of people who will ultimately move into the new public housing. Spread throughout the first five hours, you hope you will find a hero there, but in vain. They're just normal people looking for a better life, and ultimately find one.
I loved LaTanya Richardson-Jackson's Norma O'Neal, and so apparently did the producers -- they gave her the best line, after all.
When Wasicsko knocks on her door one night to ask how the housing turned out for her, she peers at him over her bifocals, then smiles ruefully: "I'd like to ask you the same thing."