Oscar Isaac, whose career has taken off since “Inside Llewyn Davis” and who will soon be an even bigger star after the new Star Wars reboot in which he plays Poe Dameron, heads an ensemble cast of familiar and new faces in David Simon’s (“Treme,” “The Wire”) new HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero.”
Co-executive produced and co-written with journalist William F. Zorzi, the gritty six-part drama is based on a book by the same name penned by former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin about the true story of the mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko, who in the late 1980’s was embroiled in a battle with his own citizens when he tried to follow the federal court order to build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town.
Directed by Academy Award winning director Paul Haggis, the drama has his signature dramatic device of interlinking story lines with a number of characters whose lives overlap or somehow connect, even as they appear to have no direct relationship to each other.
The title of the mini-series and book comes from a quote by writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “Show Me a Hero, and I will write a tragedy.” Without giving away any spoilers, there seems to be only bad news ahead. The moody drama series is deep in Sidney Lumet country, with heavy doses of corruption, politics, and greed in New York.
The impressive ensemble includes Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder, Peter Riegert, LaTanya Richardson Jackson (whose husband is Samuel L. Jackson), Jim Belushi, Alfred Molina, Ilfenesh Hadera, Natalie Paul, Laura Gomez, Bob Balaban (a scene-stealer as the no-nonsense judge), Bruce Altman, Carla Quevedo, Josh Salatin and Melanie Nicholls-King.
HBO celebrated the premiere of “Show Me a Hero” Monday night at the Times Center in the New York Times Building on West 41st Street. Following a screening of the first two episodes, the cast and guests gathered in the lower level of the building for drinks and a sensational buffet of chicken kabobs, sliders, steak enchiladas and frozen desserts.
HBO always hosts terrific parties, and guests who joined in the celebration included Katie Couric, Dan Abrams, Marisa Tomei, Frances McDormand and her husband, director Joel Coen.
My favorite moment included watching Samuel L. Jackson and his wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson who seemed to be having a fabulous time. Jackson made sure his wife was the center of attention. He took photographs and posed for endless photographs, but his main job for the evening was to escort his wife, who he accompanied on the red carpet and stayed close to all evening. At one point Jackson stepped away to pose for a selfie and Mrs. Jackson called out, “Where is he now?” The Tony-nominated actress turns in an Emmy-worthy performance, as do many of the cast members.
In his introduction before the two-hour screening, David Simon thanked HBO for approving “six hours on public housing, governance and race.” He joked, “My next miniseries will be eight hours on tax reform.”
Then Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist, spoke about the serious themes of the drama, a project he came to 14 years ago when executive producer Gail Mutrux handed him Belkin’s book and told him, “You have to read this book.”
Simon added, “Every now and then, something comes along and you get to be part of an argument and this is an argument that we know from the news right now and over the last year that the argument is ongoing in America. It’s really fundamental and how it resolves itself is a question that we’re going to be dealing with for the next generation and maybe more.”
Earlier on the red carpet, Simon told journalists that they got the green light to do the mini-series a year before Ferguson, and even though the project had been percolating for 14 years, it was more timely than ever.
“My feeling was this dynamic racially is not changing,” Simon said. “Sadly, America was not going to have figured out the idea of how to share geography, how to share society, how to share economically. This whole notion that we can have separate Americas, one for the underclass, one for the rest of us, and that that’s not going to build something chaotic and brutish and ugly, I don’t get it. This is an argument that has to happen. It had to happen then in Yonkers. It’s still happening now, sadly.”
I asked Simon if he thought a television program could affect the way people think. “I actually don’t know,” he replied. “I just know that it matters to me that there’s stories that are part of the argument rather than not. I came up as a reporter, so it’s got to be part of the argument or why do it, but that’s not healthy, and that attitude may be why I’ve completely marginalized myself in the weird little PBS corner of HBO, but I’m happy to be there.”
Simon’s next project takes on pornography and stars James Franco. So far, he told me, they just got started and no other casting has been announced.
“Crash” director Paul Haggis raved about his cast to me on the red carpet. Oscar Isaac, he said, is “brilliant and gives such a nuanced performance.” He also complimented Winona Ryder who plays a local councilwoman. “We haven’t seen Winona in a long time. She does a great job disappearing into this character.”
As for what he hopes viewers take away from the series, Haggis noted, “I hope it brings up the question of, can we have common sense in politics because right now, all we do is we govern by fear.”
Jim Belushi, who plays an uncharacteristic dramatic turn as the mayor who Nick Wasicsko defeats in an election, told journalists on the red carpet that to get into the world of the drama, David Simon explained the political situation in detail. “I am hoping all the things that we talked about we put into our performance, that the audience will take something away, very soulful things indeed and make some changes in the way they look at things.”
As for what he personally learned about politics, Belushi cracked, “That I’m glad I’m an actor and politicians are actors, too, but they don’t get to take a break and go to their trailer.”
“Show Me a Hero” premieres on HBO Sunday, August 16.