An act of civil disobedience turns into a standoff with police when homeless people in Cincinnati take over the public library to seek shelter from the bitter cold.
Initial release: April 5, 2019 (USA)
Director: Emilio Estevez
Screenplay: Emilio Estevez
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Producers: Emilio Estevez, Alex Lebovici, Steve Ponce, Lisa Niedenthal
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.
In the U.S., homeless populations have increasingly turned for daytime shelter to public libraries, which provide not just relief from the elements and a relatively safe, calm environment, but also internet access that may be the only available means of job/housing networking or long-distance communication for most of them. Their presence is an annoyance to some, and a frequent trial to staff — but so far no one has tried to revoke general access to this last bastion of free indoor public space. (But give them time.)
Emilio Estevez’s “The Public” savvily deploys this circumstance for a commentary on up-to-the-moment social issues that’s also a curiously old-fashioned, uplifting dramedy redolent of Frank Capra and William Saroyan. With the writer-director himself as a classic fed-up Average Joe who leads a crew of lovable misfits (i.e. homeless people) in a largely comic rebellion against The Man, this somewhat anachronistic, over-rigged crowd-pleaser-cum-“message movie” at times seems too cute and simplistic for the harsh realities it touches on.
Nonetheless, it largely works. As in Estevez’s not-dissimilar, starrier ensemble piece “Bobby” 12 years ago, this conventionally crafted expression of “Hollywood liberal” empathy consistently engages despite the relative obviousness of its dramatic tactics. Whether it will find much of an audience is another matter — movies about the homeless have almost always been a tough sell.
During a record-setting brutal Midwestern winter, librarian Stuart (Estevez) doesn’t mind going to work at all — the heating system is on the fritz in his apartment building, exasperating both residents and the new building manager (Taylor Schilling’s Angela) he’s flirtatiously friendly with. The same impulse draws much of Cincinnati’s homeless to the main library every day, where they can escape the subzero temperatures outside that are literally freezing some of them to death each night.
This particular day is otherwise nothing special, bringing the usual amiable sparring from Stuart’s colleague Myra (Jena Malone) and a kerfuffle or two provoked by mental illness among some of the indigent patrons. But our protagonist has developed relationships with most of his “regulars,” and can quell most problems that come up without need of security personnel.