“Show Me a Hero” and the limits of Life, the Movie

Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko in "Show Me a Hero"The HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, which concluded last night, is a really interesting piece of work. On one level, it’s a sprawling portrait of a struggling urban community — Yonkers, New York in the 1980s and early ’90s, when a push to desegregate public housing nearly tore it apart. This wide scale probably isn’t surprising, since it was co-written by David Simon, creator of The Wire. But unlike The Wire, which was an ensemble piece from beginning to end, Show Me a Hero also has a central character: Nick Wasicsko, a young, up-and-coming local politician who is serving as Mayor during the crisis and whose work to advance the desegregation program derails his career.

As played by Oscar Isaac, Wasicsko is a compellingly complicated figure. His cheerful earnestness and obvious love for his community make him easy to root for. But as he wades deeper into the morass of the housing battle, those qualities that initially seem so positive also start to cut against him; he lacks the sophistication to understand all the angles of the game he’s trying to play, and the tough skin that can help a politician who is the target of public anger hold on to his self-image. Watching Wasicsko’s soul slowly leak out of him is what makes Show Me a Hero effective as tragedy.

But there is one paradox about Wasicsko that the film never really tries to grapple with. Over the course of its story, as he becomes increasingly desperate to turn his career around, we see him become someone willing to cross lines and burn bridges that had seemed precious to him at the story’s opening. But why? What changed inside him that brought such moves into the realm of the possible?

Now, of course, Nick Wasicsko was a real person, and we can never really know what was going on in another person’s head. And the motivations of Show Me a Hero’s Nick Wasicsko, the character Nick Wasicsko, can diverge wildly from those of the real person who inspired him, depending on the whims of writers and actors and producers. But it’s hard to watch Show Me a Hero and not find yourself trying to peer into this character’s head and see what’s going on there, because the movie never really lingers on that question — or, at least, it allows itself to be satisfied with leaving it as an exercise for the viewer, which means everyone is going to have their own theory.

So here’s mine: Wasicsko forgot that he was living in real life and not “life, the movie.”

Life, the Movie was the title of a 1999 book by Neal Gabler that offered a provocative premise: that entertainment has become so deeply woven into the fabric of modern life that we have internalized its values and structures. We expect real life to play out the way it does on the TV screen, with clearly recognizable heroes and villains, story arcs that have neat beginnings and endings, plot lines that set up and pay off. And when the facts of the world don’t fit this model, we simply rearrange them in our heads until they do. We force narratives into places they don’t exist and never have, just because we can no longer comprehend of a thing that isn’t also a narrative.

And that is where Show Me a Hero’s Wasicsko makes his central mistake: he comes to see the desegregation battle not as a big, messy clash of interests with lots of players with their own motivations, but as a hero’s journey in which the hero — himself, naturally — embarks on a quest to slay a dragon. Wasicsko’s version of the story has a bittersweet ending: he slays the dragon of segregation, but it inflicts a mortal wound on him in the process, wrecking a promising political career. In the movie playing in his mind, he’s the hero who made a noble sacrifice, who laid down his life to save the world.

Which leads him into a series of rude shocks as he discovers that nobody else sees things that way. Nobody. Even those closest to him, his wife and friends and most intimate political allies, see the fight over “the housing” as just another political battle; it cost him an election, but politicians lose elections all the time. They assume he’ll just take a little time off, rebuild his support, and come back another day. And to those who know him less well, the countless ordinary people of Yonkers, he’s even less integral to the story; to them he’s just a name on a ballot or a face from the endless TV news stories that ran during the desegregation crisis, just another supporting character.

This is something Nick has trouble accepting, because in the hero’s journey, the hero’s sacrifice is supposed to be followed by a commensurate reward; there is always some boon at the end of the road that makes all the suffering along the way worthwhile. But other than a little praise from some out-of-state worthies, Nick finds no reward waiting at the end of his journey. There’s no grand movement to recognize that he was right, no groundswell of support to bring him back to office; just the  abstract notion that he’s made life a little better for some people he doesn’t really know. Which doesn’t seem to him like much of a reward, considering all he gave up.

Real life, in other words, is not like Life, the Movie. In real life, the good guys sometimes lose. To live in the world, they have to learn how to accept that, to accept that sometimes the only reward for doing the right thing is your own awareness of having done it.

But Nick can’t accept that. It seems wrong; unfair. That’s not how life is supposed to work. And this sense of being wronged, of being entitled to something better, is the seed that we eventually see grow into some foul fruit.

We see that growth over time, sometimes in quiet, surprising ways. There’s one scene in the last two-episode block that expresses it particularly well, though. In this scene, Nick, who is struggling mightily to get back into politics, sees a notice of a public meeting where the winners of spaces in the new housing development he helped push through will be announced. Despite having no role to play in this meeting, he chooses to stop by anyway. But once he’s there, he only stays for a little while, sitting silently while watching residents of Yonkers’ decrepit, crime-ridden housing projects jump up in excited joy when their names are called. He observes this scene briefly, mutters congratulations to a few of them as they dash past him to accept their ticket to a clean new townhouse in the white part of town, and then slips back out the door.

Why is this scene in the movie? Viewed strictly from a plot perspective, it doesn’t accomplish much. Nick doesn’t really do anything at the meeting; he just shows up and then leaves. The event would have gone the same whether he had attended or not. So why devote precious minutes in a miniseries to showing it to us? Why bother?

The answer is that the film shows it to us because it illuminates just how deeply Nick has begun living in Life, the Movie. Because he would not have gone at all if he’d expected to happen what actually did. What he’d expected — or maybe just hoped for, deep in his heart of hearts — was that he would walk in and someone would shout “Look! It’s Nick Wasicsko! He’s the one who made all this possible!” And then he’d receive a classic Hollywood moment: the slow clap. One by one, the recipients of these beautiful new houses would stand up and applaud his noble sacrifice, until the entire hall was rocking. And then he could take the microphone, say a few humble words, and insist that they get back to the program.

Because that’s what happens to heroes who make noble sacrifices in Life, the Movie: they get, at minimum, a delicious moment of public validation. They get a moment where they can bask in a warm wave of applause, of recognition that they Did the Right Thing. This is why Wasicsko has bothered to take time to come to this meeting; this experience is what he is looking for. What he is hungry for.

But director Paul Haggis’ pitiless camera makes clear, as Wasicsko sits unnoticed on a folding chair, just how little the conventions of Life, the Movie actually pertain to life, the real thing. The movie doesn’t have to lay this out explicitly; you can see it in the sour look on Oscar Isaac’s face and the cold light that bathes the gymnasium where the meeting is being held. He’s come looking for something he thinks he’s earned, that he deserves, only to find that it isn’t on offer.

The film (and the book it’s based on) takes its title from a saying by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” Fitzgerald, who struggled with commercial failure and alcoholism his whole life and whose work was never properly appreciated until after he had died, would have known. He also observed, however, that “there are no second acts in American lives,” and that feels even more like an epitaph for Wasicsko; for his tragedy, a tragedy of thwarted expectations and virtue unrewarded, is in a sense the defining tragedy of our age, an age when fame and recognition and material success have come completely unmoored from any requirement of selflessness or even accomplishment.

In that sense, perhaps, today we are all Nick Wasicsko.