Sunday, November 8, 2015

Big Shot

A couple days back we stumbled into binge-watching Show Me a Hero, a miniseries on HBO that debuted back in August, but I'd never heard of it before.  Serendipity definitely has its rewards.  Show Me a Hero chronicles the true-life tragedy of Nick Wasicsko, the mayor of Yonkers circa late-80s whose fever for political power got circumvented into practicality by a federal judge demanding low-income housing be built in the area, despite the angry protests of Yonkers (white) residents.  Wasicsko's story is the main one, but like he did in The Wire and Treme David Simon (Show Me's writer, along with William F. Zorzi, and director Paul Haggis) creates a Dickensian universe here, following bureaucrats and politicians and Yonkers citizenry, as well as people living in the projects who will have to enter a lottery to gain access to the housing.  The housing itself is eventually built to specifications that try to eradicate slums in favor of townhomes cushioned within already flourishing neighborhoods. 
And there's the rub:  the "flourishing neighbors," at least those who are the most vocal, create proto-Tea-Parties against this idea, or really any idea that includes including poor (read black) people amongst them.
A maelstrom of backroom politics and maneuvering ensues, but what makes Show Me a Hero such an incredible piece of work (and an emotional experience) is the intensity with which it considers every aspect of the goings-on.  It's a mural really, made out of all kinds of details and minutia and fragments that accumulate incredible power over six or so hours of watching, until by the end I felt as devastated as I did when I first saw Death of a Salesman.  There are no heroes in the piece, and like Willie Loman finally realizing in the end that he is nothing special even while he screams "I am not a dime a dozen," Wasicsko's desperate attempt to be somebody becomes mythic even though his part of the history seems incredibly small and never really recognized by anyone the way he needs it to be.
Oscar Isaac plays Wasicsko's with such skill and nuance and energy you feel connected directly to his burning ambition to ascend, which actually is the root of his failure.  Isaac does not leave any space for judgment here, turning each scene he's in into ways to witness what Wasicsko wants and to also understand how he's not going to get it no matter how hard he tries.  He yearns to be a big shot, and his first foray into that status comes when he uses the divisive housing issue as his way into office, promising homeowners in the area against the issue that he'll appeal on behalf of the city against the judge's order, kind of knowing deep inside it won't work.  And it doesn't, and he's saddled with backtracking, but then by doing so he grows to understand the importance of the issue.  He never recovers, however, from the vitriol involved, confusing love with votes, and finally, in 1993, he kills himself. 
Other people fare better in the story, and you could really argue that the soul of the piece is Catherine Keener's Mary Dorman, one of those outraged homeowners who at first gives into the needs of the mob she's a part of.  She yells and screams indignantly, and tries to tell herself the true reason for her outrage isn't because the people moving in are black but because of "property values."  Then as she begins witnessing the actual behavior of the mob it all gets clarified for her:  this is a moral issue.  Keener gives us Mary without decoration or heroism.  She never has an epiphany.  Eventually her transformation registers as just plain old working-class common-sense finally coming back.  Mary slowly becomes an advocate for the people she once wanted to deny entrance.  It's hard to put into words how Keener manages to dramatize Mary's growth because she never actually changes, except somehow she does, and in one beautiful scene when she helps escort some of the new residents to their townhomes you get a feel for Mary's moral outlook.  Two ladies in the neighborhood are standing defiantly outside the bus as everyone unloads and walks over to their now homes.  These ladies are definitely not part of a welcome committee.  They scour, arms folded, ready to spit fire.  Mary Dorman walks over to them, and Keener gives them that same exact scour, that same fiery attention until they both back away, not defeated by any means, just denied. 
One of those residents visiting for the first time is Norma O'Neal, played so effortlessly and gracefully by Latanya Richardson Jackson I almost remember her not as a character on a TV show, but someone I knew way back when.  47, diabetic, Norma is going blind, living in the projects, trying to get some help through a home-health agency but none of the aides want to come to her apartment because they're scared of the surroundings.  When she gets the word that she's won the housing lottery and is able to move into a new townhome, she's happy but also knows the neighbors don't want her there.  But her son and daughter talk her into making the move, and when she enters the new home you get this feeling of both exhilaration and exhaustion:  she's found her place in the world, but the world doesn't want her there.  Jackson lets us know she'll be okay though.  She plays Norma without "playing her," delivering a performance that's so real you can't help but know even though her life has improved she knows it doesn't really matter.  She's still going blind.  She's still in a place where she's not wanted.  But she knows she will survive.  She knows it's going to be whatever it's going to be, and she'll have to make her life from that, which has always been the way.
In the end, Show Me a Hero doesn't show us heroes, as much as how "heroism" is never the point.