Writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez is clearly his father’s son. In The Public, he’s using this film as a platform for his political activism by bringing awareness to the problem of homelessness and the importance of public libraries as a vital part of a civilized culture. And of course, if you don’t agree with the film’s message, you’re a greedy, racist, capitalistic Nazi.
Emilio Estevez is librarian Stuart Goodman working at the prestigious Cincinnati Public Library. As Goodman arrives just before the library’s open, he is greeted by the usual group of homeless men and women who use the library to clean-up, search the net, read books, and find warmth from Cincinnati’s bitter cold spell.
This is not Goodman’s day as he is pulled into a meeting with his supervisor Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) and city attorney Josh Davis (Christian Slater). Apparently, Goodman had days before asked a homeless person to leave the library because he reeked of body odor, thus denying that gentleman’s ability to access the free services provided by the library and thus violating his civil rights.
“…a vocal group of homeless men discusses the possibility of staying in the library overnight because the nearby shelters have reached capacity…”
Clearly, under the bureaucratic thumb of city politics, Goodman finds support in his fellow librarian Myra (Jena Malone), who is at heart a liberal activist of liberal causes, and his neighbor Angela (Taylor Schilling), who might just be a good match for Goodman in the relationship category.
Meanwhile, a vocal group of homeless men discusses the possibility of staying in the library overnight because the nearby shelters have reached capacity and reports are surfacing that some homeless are freezing to death on the streets. Camping out at the library is exactly what they decide to do. At closing time, several dozen men decide to stay in their seats and refuse to leave the premises. Unable to remove the gentlemen and with the door now barricaded, Goodman is looked upon as the unsuspecting ringleader of this act of civil disobedience in the eyes of the police and city attorney Davis and a very public conflict begins.
The problem with The Public and many fictional films that stand behind a political cause is the binary nature of its characters and storyline. Characters are either good or bad/evil. The library staff and the homeless are good, the police and city officials are bad. The homeless are made to look incredibly sympathetic, and the politicians are assholes. At face value, there’s nothing wrong with this way of storytelling. The Public now comes across as heavy-handed fiction, which creates an emotional disconnection with the very real plight of homelessness.
“…[political films] either make an earnest attempt to persuade the other side…or play to its political allies and demonize its enemies.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the ever-present homeless problem or the overwhelming good local libraries provide to their communities. My problem is the wedge political fictional films like this, shoves between the opposing sides of that cause deepening the divide. In the case of The Public, this is demonstrated in the central storyline when the peaceful takeover of the library by the homeless is spun as a hostile occupation of city property, resulting then into the excessive use of force by the police under the command of the city attorney to end the “hostilities.”
Removing politics from the argument, The Public is a reasonably decent comedy/drama. The cast is top-notch with Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin, Gabrielle Union, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, and Emilio Estevez in the lead role and at the helm as director. Considering it’s a film about a perceived hostile takeover, the story’s tone leans heavily to comedy, rarely ever taking any dark turns. If not for its star power, this story could have easily turned up as a made-for-cable movie.
In these divided times, films centering on political issues either make an earnest attempt to persuade the other side to consider its point of view or play to its political allies and demonize its enemies. The Public does the latter, and the result is to further widen the divide of political discourse with self-righteous finger-pointing.
The Public (2018) Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. Starring Emilio Estevez, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright. The Public screened at the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
6 out of 10 stars