THE PUBLIC, US, 2017. Starring Emilio Estevez, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Taylor Schilling, Jeffrey Wright. Directed by Emilio Estevez. 120 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language)
Have you ever been criticised for being a “bleeding heart”, or find someone mocking you, slinging off, for taking up causes and expressing compassion? If so, this is definitely a film for you. On the other hand, if you are critical of bleeding hearts, if somebody suggests that you are “heartless”, this is probably a film that you should avoid – although the Cincinnati prosecutor played by Christian Slater who is proud to be heartless, campaigning to become mayor on law and order issues, eliminating crime from the streets, might prove something of a mirror/challenge.
The title indicates that this is about the range of ordinary people. More specifically, it is a reference to the Public Library in the city of Cincinnati, a haven for those who want to read, for those who want to go online, a refuge for many of the homeless people who form a kind of sub- community there, using bathroom facilities, going online, going inside to keep warm on wintry Ohio days.
The film has been written and directed by Emilio Estevez who is probably best remembered by older audiences as being one of The Breakfast Club. He is not a prolific film director but, his films in the last 15 years or so include Bobby, a film about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and The Way, the film he directed about the Camino starring his father, Martin Sheen (a long-time social activist who would be very proud of his son for this film and its themes).
Action takes place over a couple of days, record lows in temperature in Cincinnati. We are introduced to Stuart Goodson (now that’s a symbolic name) one of the librarians (Emilio Estevez himself) – and learn more about him and his previous years on the streets – who lives alone, is friendly with his landlady, Angela (Taylor Schilling), and co-worker, Myra (Jena Malone). We also see him mixing with the range of mainly homeless men, friendly but reticent. His boss, Jeffrey Wright, summons him to warn that he and a fellow worker are to be sued by a homeless man because they asked him to leave the library after many complaints about his smell. The city prosecutor is, as mentioned, Christian Slater, sure and smug running, from mayor against a local black pastor.
So, where is this taking us? To a situation in the library which serves as a fable for concern about those in need and whether the heart should bleed or not.
In fact, a lot of the clientele want to stay in the library because there are not enough shelters around the city. They are to be ousted but they decide to barricade the doors, Stuart and Myra still inside, the media turning up thinking that it is a violent hostage situation, the chief police negotiator (Alec Baldwin) who is on leave to try to find his drug-addicted son, taking command of the situation, calling police reinforcements…
On the one hand, there is plenty to appeal to our bleeding hearts as we empathise and try to work out what we would do in a similar situation. On the other hand, there is a critique of hard hearts, of television anchors wanting to get scoops and ignoring the truth.
In case we should find ourselves in a similar situation, the ending of the film provides quite an original solution as to how to bring the situation to a peaceful end – one might say it forces the authorities to face some bare facts!
In an era where homelessness is becoming more prevalent even in prosperous cities and countries, where cerebral consideration of economic situations and budgeting debate seem more important than stressful realities, here is a humane film which can be proud of its bleedingheartedness.
Rialto Released August 1st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.