Review by C.J. Bunce
Do you ever wonder why movies that actually have something important to say never win Oscars? Why some movies get shuffled away from the limelight, hidden away because the studios, the politicians, and the politicos all are called to the carpet? If you saw the trailer for The Public at the beginning of 2018, you probably got goosebumps. We previewed it at borg here. We first heard about the film in 2016, and it was filmed in 2017. “The Public” in the title is the Cincinnati Public Library, which, like many medium and large city libraries, is a haven for the homeless. On a particularly bitter Midwest night, a group of homeless decide to stay at the library for the night. Sounds like an easy solution to a life-or-death matter, right? Writer-director Emilio Estevez digs into the many ways libraries support their communities, while he shines a light on every faction of those communities that stand in the way of real progress. So why did it take until April 2019 to arrive in theaters? Probably because it actually had something of value to say, and along with government leaders, the police, the press, and Hollywood were all uncomfortable with that message. If you see it, finally streaming now on Peacock, you’ll probably agree its message, delivery, and performances were worthy of a wider audience.
It’s been a long time since most audiences last saw Emilio Estevez. For most fans the last film was 1993’s Judgment Night, where Estevez led a great cast that included Denis Leary in his big breakout year, Cuba Gooding, Jr. just after his stint in A Few Good Men, and Jeremy Piven first showing audiences that smarm charm we’d later see a whole lot more of in Entourage (if you haven’t seen Judgment Night, it’s a thriller worth seeing). Usually a good guy and straight arrow, we’d also see Estevez as suave and cocky as he became a household name and stayed that way for an entire decade, from 1982 to 1993. Estevez starred in a memorable movies like Tex, The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, Maximum Overdrive, Stakeout, Young Guns, Freejack, and The Mighty Ducks. He then took the reins as writer, director, and actor twelve years ago in a lesser known film, a biopic of the Bobby Kennedy assassination called Bobby, and he returned in The Public. Homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction come together as the topic of this drama. Who hasn’t asked the question, why some government program couldn’t be arranged to use a few public buildings after hours to help the homeless?
Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, a supervisor librarian who works with a vocal progressive subordinate named Myra played by Jena Malone (Donnie Darko, Ellen Foster), and head of security Ernesto Ramirez played by Jacob Vargas (Luke Cage, Medium, Psych, Burn Notice), answering questions from the public from 9 a..m. to closing every day. The staff of the library know their patrons by sight and by name. These include the late Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed, Ghostbusters, RoboCop, Community, Law & Order, The Wire) in one of his many powerful performances, and Rhymefest (Selma, Four Brothers) as a mentally challenged patron who is new to visiting the library. We learn that Stuart and Ernesto have caused a lawsuit against the city for their actions involving another patron, bringing on some lambasting by a smarmy office-seeking city attorney played by Christian Slater (Mr. ROBOT, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Young Guns II), and ultimately a dismissal for Stuart by his boss, played by Jeffrey Wright (James Bond series, Lady in the Water, The Manchurian Candidate, Homicide).
Then there’s that dark and chilly night, when Michael Kenneth Williams’ character leads a sit-in, which draws in both Stuart and Myra. Alec Baldwin (The Departed, Malice, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Hunt for Red October, Beetlejuice, Knots Landing) plays a crisis negotiator for the Cincinnati police department, Richard T. Jones (Event Horizon, Collateral, Phone Booth, Godzilla, Super 8, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Judging Amy) has barely a cameo as Chief Edwards, Gabrielle Union (LA’s Finest, Deep Space Nine, Life, Night Stalker) plays a local reporter willing to ignore the truth for social media likes, and Taylor Schilling (Argo, Orange is the New Black, Dark Matter) is Stuart’s apartment manager.
One thread follows Stuart to his apartment where the quirky manager makes a pass at him. Another flashes the audience all the things librarians do in a day for people, none of which involves reading a book. Myra talks big but comes to realize she doesn’t follow through on her views. Baldwin’s crisis negotiator and his ex-wife, played by Susanna Thompson (Star Trek Voyager), have a son who is missing and believed to be living on the streets. Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Punisher, Atomic Blonde, John Wick, Conan the Barbarian, Watchmen, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Halloween, Sucker Punch, Get Carter) brings in a low-key musical score for the film.
It’s a simple story with both big and simple ideas. Estevez’s direction delivers several opportunities for both cheers and jeers of the characters. Every actor gets a chance to shine. And it’s the kind of activism show Estevez’s father Martin Sheen became synonymous with. It will raise hackles and provide some feels throughout. It puts ideas out there while also being entertaining–a pretty good combination. Highly recommended, watch The Public, now streaming on Peacock.