Created by: David Simon
Directed by: Paul Haggis
Written by: David Simon and William F. Zorzi
by Jon Cvack
I attribute the stupid, ironic name of this show to the reason why no one’s heard of it. To save you the frustration of failing to under its purpose until far into the series, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” Boom, now you can take that image of an ABC Family Drama show about a dad who’s a firefighter out of your head and replace it one of the greatest mini-series I’ve ever seen.
First off, Oscar Isaac should win an Oscar for this. I don’t often binge, but this sucker was quaffed in near record time. Created by David Simon, this series is as good as any season of The Wire. It follows the heated community debate in Yonkers, New York when the government decided to construct a bunch of public housing units, scattering them across middle class white neighborhoods, rather than assembling them all into a central area, and risking a rise in crime as a result. The predominantly white families in no way want these houses in their backyard, assembling every time there’s a vote at city hall in order to demand that their councilmen reject the motion. Of course, they say it’s not racist, that it’s all about property values, the same spiel we hear today in this post-explicit racist era.
The cast in this show is absolutely incredible, and I’m really not sure how James Belushi, who plays the incumbent mayor Angelo Martinelli, went so under the radar. I haven’t heard or a read a single thing about his performance, which while brief, is amazing.
Yonkers has two year terms for their mayors, contrary to four year terms - what the Yonker council refers to as ‘Weak Mayors’ - forcing the incumbent candidates to have to constantly run for reelection and avoid doing anything too divisive that could boot them out. Sure enough, a recent councilman who’s only 27 years old, Nick Wasicko (Oscar Isaac), decides to run against the long standing Mayor Martinelli and wins, becoming Yonkers youngest mayor. Yet, upon meeting Martinelli to offer his condolences, he gets a wink, indicating that Wasiscko has no idea what he just walked into.
And so Nick enters his tenure, discovering how difficult it is to get anything done. All so often political films have relied on showing us the big US Government Machine, where because the personalities are so large, we spend more time looking into their character than at the system operates. Show Me a Hero is a great illustration of how difficult governance is. The problem is fairly simple - a liberal judge Judge Leonard B. Sand (Bob Balaban) has ordered the councilmen to apportion out the housing across Yonkers by casting vote that ensure it happens, and if it doesn’t then they will be found in contempt of court. The councilmen will be fined and imprisoned, and the City of Yonkers will be fined $100 a day and that fine will double every day, which will bankrupt the city within months. The issue for the councilmen is that if they accommodate the judge’s demands, they could then lose their jobs. Instead, they attempt to appeal, which delays the fines, but still Nick has to try and get the voting done before the appeals process fails and the money starts exiting the town.
It’s this segment, in particular, that gets fascinating. The people who are going to get hurt most over the situation first are the public employees who can get laid off without affecting the town’s stability. These are voters, and more significantly, friends and family of many of the community. So unless the Republicans want to hurt such people, they better make a deal. The whole time Nick Wasicko is having an incredibly hard time keeping the votes in order, as the Republicans are constantly kowtowing to the town’s demands. They’re led by the obstinate Hank Spallone (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina), who sees himself as the hero of the situation, standing up to big government impeding on what the town doesn’t want. One of his most passionate supporters is Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) who gets caught up in the fervor, supporting the cause more out of ignorance than anything else. Thus, when Spallone successfully runs for mayor, ensuring his supporters that he’ll toss the court’s demands right back at the justices, Mary quickly learns it was all political posturing, and with the Supreme Court rejecting any appeal, there’s little Spallone could do to combat the problem.
What’s so fascinating about this entire first half is seeing how the sausage is made. The issue isn’t that the system is broken - though the weak vs strong mayor does make it difficult to govern - so much as that it actually works too well in allowing the people to have a voice. They demand their councilmen vote in their best interests, and some councilmen will do in oder to keep their jobs versus others who possess more pragmatic governing styles, not caring all that much for idealism or populist demands. Spallone knew there was no chance of the Supreme Court appealing the District Court’s decision, yet he knew he could get into the top office by running on a ticket that would appear to represent the people’s interest. Other politicians knew that there was no alternative. They had to make the vote and accept the consequences.
Stay tuned for Part 2...
BELOW: An extended interview with the brilliant David Simon
Thoughts on films, old and new
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