As civil liberties get increasingly squeezed in the Trump era, The Public takes on a compelling sense of urgency. On the surface, the movie is a shallow but vigorously paced entertainment from writer-director-producer-star Emilio Estevez about a group of homeless people who refuse to leave a Cincinnati Public Library after closing hours because, well, it’s freezing outside, the shelters are full up and they might die. Fired up by the media, who invent a hostage situation (fake news!) for ratings, the cops send in a team of law-and-order headbusters to expel these interlopers who mistakenly believe the public library actually belongs to, y’know, the public.
The film is not based on a true story — but the fact that it could be lights a socially conscious fire under the familiar beats of the plot. Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, the head librarian who sympathizes with the sit-in, especially after he learns that at least one homeless man has already died from exposure to sub-zero temperatures. That’s when Jackson (a superb Michael Kenneth Williams), one of the homeless leaders, informs him that his group — 70 strong — will peacefully defy the orders of library administrator Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) and stay put after closing time. Stuart and his colleague Myra (Jena Malone) offer support, as does Angela (Taylor Schilling), the flirty manager of Stuart’s apartment building.
The forces lined up against them include Josh Davis (Christian Slater), a prosecutor and publicity whore who thinks a few sensational headlines will heat up his run for mayor. Alec Baldwin excels as Detective Bill Ramstead, the police negotiator, who tries to defuse the situation, but finds himself distracted by the fact that his addict son has gone missing. And it’s not helping that local TV news reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union) is less interested in disseminating the truth than in upping her national profile.
It’s good to see Estevez, 56, back in the library 34 years after he achieved Brat Pack stardom in The Breakfast Club. But his new movie — like The Way, the spiritually cogent 2010 film Estevez also wrote and directed — is hunting bigger game. It’s key that Stuart, a recovering addict, has also done time on the streets. As you can tell, Estevez has lined up a primo cast to crowd this torn-from-today’s-headlines drama with enough incident to fill a miniseries or three. But even a parade of clichés can’t distract from the film’s underlying theme about how libraries are now one of the last outpost of American democracy. Within their walls, we see manifested issues not just of homelessness, but of race, class, addiction, mental illness and income inequality. Estevez, shooting on location at the Cincinnati Public Library, proves expert at detailing the workings of a public institution that provides access to books, the internet, social interaction and the basic tenets of shelter.
For inspiration, Estevez cites “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School: The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless,” a 2007 essay by Chip Ward that offered an inside look at the tolerance shown to the homeless patrons who frequent the Salt Lake City Public Library in Utah. But in adapting Ward’s ideas to the fictional constraints of his movie, Estevez leans toward sacrificing dramatic power for blatant crowdpleasing. Still, his intent is refreshingly uncynical. Clearly, the quadruple threat doesn’t think audiences will sit still for his message without sugarcoating and a feelgood ending. At worst, you can dismiss him as a naïve do-gooder. At best, you can commend him for actually believing a movie might raise public consciousness and maybe even change things. Your call.