The Public is the latest from the mind of Emilio Estevez in a film he writes, directs and also stars in.
You can be forgiven for wincing at this prospect. It is a trifecta of death for a film that more often than not ends badly. On top of that is an amazing cast of Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Michael K. Williams, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright as well as Jena Malone.
An ad from yesteryear promoting a career as a librarian opens The Public, but we quickly shift to present day Cincinnati with a series of shots of the city showing the problem of homelessness. This issue then links to our main character, Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), who is a librarian at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (‘The Public’). As Goodson arrives at work we are shown rough sleepers standing in line to get in to use the facilities and seek refuge from a weather cold snap.
The film itself center’s round the homeless visitors’ decision to occupy the library in a peaceful protest organised by Jackson (Michael K Williams). This automatically sets the tone on the commentary and ideas reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
You find Estevez’s Goodson absolutely endearing and affable where you are prepared to root for him from the get go. We see him defuse a situation calmly with a rough sleeper spouting waiting to get in who spouts anti-semitic views as the reason for not being allowed to enter [despite the library not yet being open].
Woven in amongst this is light-heartedness in the film. There is an abundance of quick, smart and quippy exchanges between Goodson and his colleague Myra [Jena Malone] that the Gilmore Girls would be proud of.
Even with the hard-hitting subject matter of ultimately representing the vulnerable, Estevez injects humour especially in a moment with Jackson [Michael K Williams].
We see an exchange where Williams seemingly reacts angrily to the offer of money and what to do with it all for the tension to break when he reveals he is busting his balls. This is all credit to the balance and craftsmanship that is evident in Estevez’s script. Social commentary is at the heart of The Public.
An early plot point on First Amendment rights involving a lawsuit against the library for ejecting a homeless man due to his body odour feels contrived. It is an issue all too quickly resolved and merely there to introduce Josh Davis, prosecutor (Christian Slater) and Anderson, library board member, (Jeffrey Wright) to the main narrative.
The opposite can be said about Alec Baldwin’s Detective Bill Ramstead who feels naturally part of the narrative as the assigned negotiator to deal with the illegal occupation. It is a character with an arc of his own and has some real depth that is sadly missing for others.
It is an incredible ensemble cast that doesn’t quite hit the mark. You have Michael K Williams at the forefront with Estevez of the occupy movement and the two play off each other well.
Jeffrey Wright is wasted and you don’t really connect with him in a meaningful way and Christian Slater really doesn’t go beyond the stereotype of the lawyer only out for his own interests.
Barbs aimed at the current state of the news media are aplenty as we witness a local TV journalist quip “Let’s get this done otherwise I’ll freeze to death.” when reporting on the death of a homeless man due to the weather. This sort of apathy aside the misinformation in reporting of the protest features speculation on if it is a hostage situation or an active shooter interestingly brings in commentary on ‘fake news’.
There is a degree of subtlety when initially introducing this angle to the film but it quickly becomes nothing short of blatant. It all gets very literal and even borderline patronising. We also have jokes on the use of firearms by the police which is occurring to the point it loses its power.
Some of the issues of today feel included purely to make it more topical where without a few of them would rid The Public of some unnecessary clutter that weighs it down. It is impossible to escape how overly ambitious the film is with a multitude of ideas not all of which fully realised and a cast that isn’t used to its fullest potential.
There is a great humanity in how Estevez tells this story. You do feel he is genuine and sincere in his intentions of raising the main issue of homelessness and representing the forgotten in our society.
A certain charm benefits the film especially the feel-good ending that is surprising, a little absurd but undoubtedly makes you smile.