Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Emilio Estevez
Stars: Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Michael K Williams, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Gabrielle Urban, Jeffrey Wright, Jacob Vargas, Che Rhymefest Smith, Patrick Hume, Richard T Jones.
Dog Day Afternoon in a library?
The Public is set in Cincinnati, where the homeless living on the streets of the city are put at risk by the cold weather. When an unusually bitter cold snap hits the city, many people living rough on the streets are dying from exposure. They consider the library as a temporary haven from the cold. At night though, most of the homeless shelters are full. One cold night, a desperate group of homeless men, who every day use the facilities of the Cincinnati Public Library to keep warm, decide to stage a sleep in inside the library itself. Soon the situation escalates, and a standoff develops between the homeless men and the authorities.
Smarmy and ambitious prosecutor Josh Davis (Christian Slater), who is running for mayor on a campaign of being tough on law and order, brings pressure to bear on the authorities to bring the protest to a swift end.
Also caught up in events is veteran police hostage negotiator Ben Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), who is conveniently searching for his drug addict son who is also living on the streets. Inside the library, trying to maintain control of the situation, is seemingly mild-mannered and introverted library supervisor Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), who has recently been sued by a patron of the library. He sides with the homeless and doesn’t try to force them to leave the building.
Outside the media begin to report the story, using sensational “fake news” stories about a hostage situation to ramp up the drama while speculating about what is happening inside the library. While Goodson slowly transforms into a more radical activist championing the cause of the homeless, details emerge about his own chequered past, which casts his actions in a different light.
The Public is a timely film with plenty to say about the issue of homelessness, and deals with questions of government apathy, the morals of the media, the issue of mental illness, and political opportunism. As a filmmaker Emilio Estevez often displays a social conscience and wears his heart on his sleeve. This is certainly evident in his latest drama, which puts the issue of the homeless front and centre.
The Public is his first feature as a director since 201’s The Way. The Public is something of a passion project for Estevez, who spent over a decade bringing it to the screen. His screenplay is full of compassion and empathy for the plight of the homeless and the dispossessed, the addicts, and even the returned veterans suffering from their traumatic experiences, and celebrates misfits and outcasts who don’t readily fit into society. It also depicts the library as the last true bastion of democracy. Estevez scores some relevant political points, but this well-meaning film also illustrates that there is no easy solution to the problem.
There are a lot of subplots running through the narrative, although a couple of them come across as clunky and overly contrived and melodramatic. However the taut drama is leavened with touches of humour and empathy and even anger, but is actually a bit of a feel good crowd pleaser and an inspiring drama with its heart in the right place.
Thanks to some astute casting that actors playing the homeless men look the part, but for the most part they are one-dimensional stereotypes. Michael K Williams is a standout as the charismatic Jackson, a mentally ill but articulate veteran who is the de facto leader of the protest. Estevez turns in a good performance as the well-meaning Goodson. Baldwin brings a touch of gravitas to his role as Ramstead, while Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, etc) brings authority to his role as Anderson, Goodson’s boss, who is sympathetic but bound by rules and protocols. Jena Malone brings an intelligence to her role as Myra, Goodson’s co-worker who has a strong sense of social justice.
The Public has been nicely shot by Juan Miguel Azpiroz (The Way, etc), who uses warm lighting for the interiors and a colder, bluish palette for the scenes outside.
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