It takes about five minutes for us to realize that The Public — a film about a protest in a library that’s written, directed, and starring Emilio Estevez — wants to be an Important Work.
Following a group of Cincinnati librarians forced to deal with a crowd of homeless men who attempt to Occupy the library on a brutally cold night — yes, “Occupy” as in the mostly fruitless 2011 economic protest movement — The Public takes big swings at big U.S. cities’ failures to look after their most vulnerable residents, while also offering paeans about addiction, civil liberties, mental illness, police brutality, tough-on-crime politicians, and media sensationalism. If Estevez’s script were sold in book form, it’d be on the Performatively Woke shelf, alongside the fifth season of The Wire and the collected works of Aaron Sorkin.
The movie opens on Estevez’s character, a recovering alcoholic named Stuart Goodson, functioning as a librarian who doubles as a de facto social worker for the dozens of homeless people who spend their days in his downtown book depository.
While that setup’s a genuine, ripped-from-the-headlines story inspired by a 2007 essay in the Los Angeles Times by a former librarian, Stuart and colleagues’ familiarity and friendliness with their less-fortunate patrons is clunky, with each one identified by an unflattering quirk: One man spouts off blatantly incorrect facts unless his fellows respond “Hail, Caesar” in unison. An elderly woman accuses the library workers of being scheming Jews. Another man strips naked and belts out a reggae song. Estevez aims for empathy, but comes away with stereotypes.
And when the homeless population’s nominal leader (Michael K. Williams) declares their intention to remain in the library after closing time, Stuart’s immediate decision to side with them feels random and unearned. The reasoning behind his sympathies are explained later, but only through dragging exposition.
Despite his shagginess as a writer, Estevez does have a capable director’s eye. His vision of Cincinnati — a stand-in for any Rust Belt city in this case — feels gray and cold, with an unflashy camera that strives for realism. Even during the library occupation’s most unlikely turns, Estevez never plays it for grandeur, preferring a shaky, close-in style conveying his characters’ own doubts.
But the characters themselves are annoyingly broad, despite a bounty of skilled actors. There’s a serious head librarian who tries to understand the situation (Jeffrey Wright), a police negotiator with his own dark secret (Alec Baldwin), a fellow librarian who’s got all the good takes on Issues (Jena Malone), a TV reporter portraying the occupation as a hostage situation (Gabrielle Union), and a slimy prosecutor who wants to be mayor (Christian Slater).
The resulting performances are excessive and emotive, plodding through a script that never allows for silence or subtlety. At one point, quotes from The Grapes of Wrath are used as a bargaining chip.
Estevez undoubtedly made The Public with the noblest of intentions. It swats at big issues because it wants you to know the filmmaker cares. But like many civics sermons dressed up as a movie, this one’s a slog.