Several decades after he was forced to spend a Saturday at the library in The Breakfast Club, Emilio Estevez is now singing the virtues of large buildings filled with books. The director/actor's latest film is an ode to one of the remaining spaces that is free and open to all. But open to all, at least in America, is often fraught with problems, and these problems drive much of The Public.
Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, an employee of Cincinnati's public library. The library is cavernous, well resourced and used by many - including the city's homeless population. They frequent the library's bathrooms, read books and use the building as a day-long refuge from the city's freezing streets. Goodson is a diligent employee who remains good-natured around his patrons; he knows many of them and offers support and guidance.
But things get a little more complicated one night when a large group of homeless men refuse to leave the library at closing time. It's the dead of winter and all of the city's shelters are full - a night on the streets could mean death. The ringleader of the men (played by Michael Kenneth Williams) confronts Goodson with the plan and asks for his help. Goodson decides to stay and help occupy the library.
Of course, city officials won't hear of it and dispatch the police, led by a crisis negotiator played by Alec Baldwin. The district attorney also shows up to help with negotiations, and outside the media swarms into position. There follows a standoff between the homeless men and police which quickly consumes the city's attention.
The Public covers a lot of issues. Foremost is the value to society provided by free public libraries, especially for those people who have nothing. Estevez creates a loving picture of both the people who use and work in libraries. But the film doesn't just settle for this, it touches on America's opioid epidemic, its cynical political system, and even the rise of fake news. And so it's no surprise that things get a little tangled toward the end of the film. The social commentary rarely goes deep and by the end, Estevez is trying to make us laugh and smile.
The film is also not aided by a series of tacked-on subplots and characters with little to no depth. For some reason, Alec Baldwin has a drug-addled homeless son. Christian Slater plays a one-dimensional, tough-on-crime political candidate brought in for nothing more than to play the villain (he wants to send in the SWAT team). A television reporter covering the standoff is portrayed as vain and uninformed. It's hardly ground-breaking.
Despite this, the film offers entertaining moments, especially its conclusion, which proves wholly unexpected, bizarre and somewhat uplifting. It might be trying to say too much overall and be often let down by its thin script, but you can't discount the film's earnestness.