'The Public': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Rousing, feel-good civil disobedience.

Emilio Estevez directs and stars in a drama about a stand-off between homeless men and the police, co-starring Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Christian Slater and Michael Kenneth Williams.

In Emilio Estevez’s scrappy feel-good drama The Public, the head librarian of the Cincinnati Public Library becomes an accidental hero when temperatures plunge below freezing and he sides with dozens of homeless men who decide to occupy the library. Though it’s a far cry from the sophisticated filmmaking of Frederick Wiseman’s notable 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Estevez’s The Public is a close relative at least in spirit: Both films suggest that a free public library is the last bastion of a democratic society. It becomes the emblematic setting for a stand-off between America’s poor and dispossessed on one hand, and an evil mix of the police, an ambitious public prosecutor and the ever-avid media on the other. Its strong conviction should click with like-minded audiences in these times of polarized politics. 

Peculiarly, Estevez’s screenplay builds up the tension around an unlikely, TV-type situation and then deliberately deflates expectations that events will explode into bloody violence. The film’s humorous anti-climax seems to be exactly what the audience wants, however, judging from its rousing reception at its Gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Writer-director Estevez, who plays the main role of the introverted librarian with a sort of stodgy grimness, has assembled a stellar cast of great communicators around him to carry the day, including Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Christian Slater and Michael K. Williams.

It might be noted that Estevez has been associated with libraries since his early role as a teenager put in detention in the school library in The Breakfast Club. Here he plays Stuart Goodson, the dutiful chief librarian. As Stuart and his environmentally minded co-worker Myra (Malone) are aware, in the current homeless, mental illness and drug crises, librarians have become de facto social workers and first responders.

Though at first sight Stuart seems dull as dishwater, there are hints he has qualities. He is tolerant, even friendly to the many homeless people who crowd the library every day to get out of the cold, to clean up in the bathroom, to use the internet. Among them is the thoughtful Jackson (Williams) and gentle giant Big George (Che “Rhymefest” Smith), who has mental health issues.

The network of affection that binds these unfortunates together will be put to good use shortly when they informally decide to fight for their rights. Almost casually, as the library is closing, Jackson informs Stuart that they have decided not to leave. There have been several cases of street people dying from the cold in the last few days; one body was found that morning right in front of the library. The shelters are full or far away, etc., etc.

As giant posters of Frederick Douglass and Percy Shelley look on impassively, Stuart and Myra find themselves barricaded on the third floor with 70 of society’s outcasts, whom Stuart dignifies with the term "patrons." Against the wishes of the serious-looking administrator (Jeffrey Wright), the library’s security team calls in the police, who arrive en masse. A weaselly public prosecutor (Christian Slater) also turns up; he is campaigning for mayor on a law-and-order platform and sees this as a golden opportunity to get some publicity. Against all evidence, he announces there is a hostage situation going on and Stuart, the ringleader, is possibly armed.

At this point, the audience will naturally place its hopes on the rock-solid Detective Ramstead (Baldwin), the police department’s chief negotiator, to bring people to their senses. For one thing, Ramstead is the concerned father of a rebellious teenage son and addict who has vanished underground, so he should have a vested interest in keeping things under control. But as was the case with the father-son relationship in Estevez’s pilgrimage film The Way, he disappointingly sidesteps the heart of the matter.

One is equally unsure of Stuart’s feelings, if he has any, for his two potential love interests in the film, the PC librarian Myra and his neighbor and building manager Angela (a lively Schilling), who plays a crucial role in getting a videotape of what is actually happening inside to a TV reporter (Gabrielle Union). Unfortunately, the media is depicted as anything but fair and democratic, and instead of coming to the rescue of the peaceful demonstrators, the smooth reporter pushes an agenda of her own.

There is little nuance here in the storytelling or acting. The dialogue often has a stilted, unnatural ring to it, and it is a tribute to the cast that they manage to bring out the essence of the film, its political heart, so strongly. But the editing keeps things moving swiftly and seamlessly, and given the many narrative threads left barely explored, it is almost a surprise that the film ends so quickly.  Production companies: Hammerstone Studios in association with E2 Films, Living the Dream Films

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Michael K. Williams, Jacob Vargas, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Slater, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Richard T. Jones, Lee Ki-hong, Spencer Garrett, Michael Hall, Bryant Bentley
Director-screenwriter: Emilio Estevez
Producers: Emilio Estevez, Alex Lebovici, Stece Ponce Lisa Niedenthal
Executive producers: Ray Bouderau, Rich Hull, Trevor Drinkwater, Janet Templeton Michael Bien, Bob Bonder, Bryant Goulding, Craig Phillips
Director of photography: Juan Miguel Azpiroz
Production designer: David J. Bomba
Costume designer: Christopher Lawrence
Editors: Richard Chew, Hu Yang-hua
Music: Tyler Bates, Joanne Higginbottom
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
World sales: Capstone Group (CAA in U.S.)

119 minutes