America has a fine tradition of fighting City Hall, both in real life and in its Hollywood movies.
In HBO’s 6 part miniseries Show Me a Hero, it’s not about the little guy versus the bureaucrats. It’s about the man at the centre of the bureaucrats, caught in an unholy tug of war.
It’s 1987 in Yonkers, a mid-sized city in upstate New York. Young councillor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is encouraged to run for Mayor against the incumbent Angelo R. Martinelli (Jim Belushi).
But Yonkers is in the midst of a massive crisis after a federal court orders it to build low-income housing units in its white neighbourhoods. Running on a platform opposing the ruling, Wasicsko is swept into office as Yonkers’ youngest-ever Mayor. But Judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) plays hard-ball, threatening to find the city council in contempt of court and fining it $100 for the first day it misses a deadline and doubling every day -soon the city will be bankrupt.
Wasicsko has his hands tied and is forced to try and convince the people to accept the ruling. But he is met with bitter opposition as a class and race war breaks out.
Set against the political centrestage of this saga are divisive classes of poverty and more-affluent clusters. We see African-American families on the street, some the target of drug raids, contrasted by white Americans being outraged by news developments through the relative safety of their television sets. It is the latter who lead noisy protests all the way to City Hall.
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) shines in his role as the councillor trying to stand for decency in a much bigger endgame -and a role that will surely lead to much more. He falls for City Hall staffer Nay Noe (Carla Quevedo) who stands by him in the face of adversity.
Alfred Molina (Love Is Strange, The Normal Heart) sides with the public as Councillor Henry J. Spallone whilst Winona Ryder appears as Councillor Vinni Restiano and Catherine Keener (Capote, Being John Malkovich) leads the cause by angry East Yonkers as resident Mary Dorman.
There are also a number of disparate threads of supporting characters that give this tale a sense of broad community. With David Simon (Treme, The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street) would one expect anything less? The DNA of some of those works, with character actors and subtext, is heavily evident here.
Quite how Wasicsko will rise to the ‘hero’ of the title is not apparent in the first two episodes. The politic of Yonkers’ fight with the Federal Court dominates the plot, threatening to make this a uniquely American experience. But Wasicsko’s plight of being at the centre of turmoil, and struggling to hold fast to his principles, is universal.
That it is also so intelligently directed by Paul Haggis (Crash) also makes this a discerning piece of television.
Show Me a Hero begins 7.30pm Monday August 17th on Showcase.