THE PUBLIC. Starring: Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, and Gabrielle Union. Directed by Emilio Estevez. Rated M (Coarse language). 119 min,
This American drama is written and directed by Emilio Estevez who also takes a lead role in the movie. It tells the story of an act of civil disobedience when homeless people, and other people in need, take shelter in a public library to escape from the bitter cold in Cincinnati, USA. The title, seemingly innocuous, refers to a public library, the public at large, and the public good.
When Cincinnati is hit by an Arctic blast, a large group of library patrons at the city’s downtown library handle the problem by refusing to leave the library at closing time. What begins as a moderately routine act of disobedience, escalates quickly into something more serious. The local riot police, under the control of crisis negotiator, Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) enter the fray, and above them in a position of authority is the local district attorney, Josh Davis (Christian Slater) who has political ambitions of his own, and tries to solve the problem self-interestedly.
Ramstead negotiates poorly, because he is worried by his son’s drug addiction, and Davis is running on a law-and-order ticket, and wants himself to be seen by “the Public” to do the right thing. Also involved are two librarians - Head Librarian, Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez, the Director), and his assistant, Myra (Jena Malone), who are caught in the middle of the conflict.
Goodson is informed that the group will peacefully defy the orders to leave, but the situation quickly escalates. All emergency shelters in the city are full, the library patrons can’t easily leave, and Ramstead’s attempts at negotiation aren't effective. The library occupiers include people who are homeless, mentally ill, and marginalised, and the library’s staff acutely feel the conflict between their own frustration and wanting to care for their patrons. Conflicts and frustrations abound among all the people involved.
A homeless man, Jackson (Michael K. Williams) leads the sit-in, and a local reporter, Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union), sensing a good story, rushes to TV coverage, determined to portray a protest movement as a hostage situation to better sell the news, and to spread her media worth.
This is a movie that is passionate about its causes, and sees a public library as the “last bastion of fading democracy in the country”. Emotions run deep, as the film debates the pros and cons for civil disobedience in multiple ways.
The film presents the viewer with sundry sub-plots, full of moments that are directed by Emilio Estevez with force. It is a movie that aims to raise public consciousness about a range of significant justice issues, and Estevez puts them all together into an absorbing mix.
In this movie, the viewer is exposed to the plights of the homeless, the need to behave compassionately towards unsheltered people, the trauma caused by drug addiction, corruption at state government level, intellectual vanity, the distorting effects of inaccurate media reporting (fake news), the plight of the mental ill caught in crisis situations, and the need to maintain hope in human adversity.
In its wide sweep across the issues, the film is thought-provoking and challenging, and it never loses heart in the humanitarian support it offers for the poor and the deserving. As the film says, they usually “don’t have anything that anybody wants”.
The film is not based on a true story but we are made frequently aware that it could be. Moving at a quick pace, and at times melodramatically, it presents viewers with an enormous range of social issues. But above all, the film argues for the relevance and significance of justice issues relating to human rights in a remarkably compassionate way.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 1, 2019