Emilio Estevez became a Brat Pack star hanging around in a library in 1985’s “The Breakfast Club.” Years later he returns, this time as a grown up with grown up concerns. As writer-director-producer-star of “The Public” Estevez presents the socially aware story of what happens when people stand up for themselves and speak truth to power.
“The Public” sees Estevez play Stuart Goodson, head librarian and de facto social worker at the Cincinnati Public Library. Inside the library is an oasis of warmth for the city’s homeless community who use it as a drop in centre during the cold winter months. Outside, when the frigid weather claims one of the library regulars, the patrons, led by Jackson (Michael K. Williams), turn the building into an emergency homeless shelter. “There’s some situation at the central library,” says Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin). “Probably somebody had a melt down over an overdue book.”
Behind the scenes the stand-off escalates as the sensationalist media, in the form of a TV news reporter played by Gabrielle Union, misrepresents the act of civil disobedience as a possible hostage situation or active shooter. A self-righteous mayoral candidate (Christian Slater) stokes the fire while library administrator Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) tries to keep the situation from boiling over. “Wat’s the downside to having them stay there for the evening,” he asks.
“The Public” takes a long hard look at pressing social concerns. Estevez based part of this story on a Chip Ward essay about public libraries as asylums for the homeless and drives home the point with all the subtlety of one of Cincinnati’s icy winters. Lack of shelter space for the homeless population coupled with governmental cutbacks to social programs are urgent needs brought to life here in a colorful if somewhat cliched way.
The idea that, as Anderson says, public libraries are the last bastion of democracy, truly a place for everyone and anyone, is an important one but delivered with a heavy hand. By the time Goodson reads a long excerpt from “The Grapes of Wrath” to a reporter the noble efforts of the screenplay give way to the stagier aspects of Estevez’s vision.
“The Public” features good performances from Slater, Baldwin, Estevez and Taylor Schilling as a flirtatious building manager but is weighted down by the burden of its good intentions.