Movie Review: “the public” (written and directed by Emilio Estevez)
When the buzz about Emilio Estevez’s new film the public first began, many of my library colleagues and I were cautious. So pervasive are the poorly researched and/or downright insulting portrayals of libraries and librarians in the media, that a feature film with a library front-and-center had the potential to bring with it all sorts of frustrations. Would it depict librarians fairly? Would it be kind to our patrons? Did Mr. Estevez, who wrote, produced, and starred in the public, get it right?
While not a perfect movie, I am pleased to say that the public was clearly conceived with a love and understanding of libraries as a space both physical and symbolic. Furthermore, the story, which is entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, and poignant, is also very timely. In it is a powerful and necessary call-out to the casual contempt that is so often directed at those that are poor, mentally-ill, suffering, and different. Essentially, the people we see at the library every day.
It is this segment of the population that is most affected by the extreme cold spell that hits the city of Cincinnati as the movie begins. Into its central library we follow Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), a librarian with a difficult past and an obvious passion for his job. Friendly with Goodson is Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), a regular library patron who is homeless by choice. It is due to their relationship that Jackson approaches Goodson before the library closes the next evening to inform him that since the city’s shelters have run out of room, rather than perish in the freezing weather, the un-housed of Cincinnati would be occupying the library that night. The situation quickly escalates into a stand-off between those inside the library and the police led by veteran negotiator, Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) and ambitious DA, Josh Davis (Christian Slater), who happens to be running for mayor as your typical law-and-order candidate. This stand-off is what makes up a majority of the movie.
The ethical battle lines in the public are uncommonly clear for both the characters in the movie and the audience—you are either on the side of compassion, or you believe that the Cincinnati homeless should freeze in the cold of night. While most of the characters in the public are relatively uncomplicated and pick their sides almost immediately, some of the films most satisfying moments occur in observing those that take longer to decide. Once they do, though, watch out! Thanks to the admirable performances from the entire cast, it is easy for viewers to dive into the film’s dilemma as well, and consequently be forced to examine their own consciences. What, for example, would I do if such a situation occurred at my library?
It’s not as implausible as it might at first seem. Indeed, despite the public’s dramatic flourishes, everything in the movie that is related to libraries comes across as deeply authentic. The naked man singing at the all-glass window? My laugh during that scene was the loudest and the longest in the theater, not because it is funny (though it is), but because it’s true. Any librarian who has spent time working at an urban library will watch the public with many a knowing nod. Estevez clearly did his research. In fact, I would be surprised if some of the film’s scenes weren’t directly inspired by true events.
Nothing has yet been released regarding the public’s availability beyond its world premiere. My suggestion is that it be screened as a public service, with follow-up discussion, at every urban public library in the country. As crucial as seeing the film, though, would be the dialogue to follow. While I’m touched by Mr. Estevez’s tribute to libraries, it is the public’s focus on the issues of mental health, human rights, race, and inequality (to name a few) that make it necessary to watch. Our country needs to talk about these topics, and if the impetus that gets us there happens to be an excellent movie, all the better. To that end, here’s hoping the public gets maximum exposure!