A group of homeless people occupy Cincinnati’s public library to shelter from the bitter cold in this deeply flawed but well-meaning social drama based on true events. Written, directed by and starring Emilio Estevez, The Public presents a heartening story of triumph of good over evil, but sadly lacks the gravitas one would usually expect from these types of stories.
Estevez plays Stuart, a once homeless librarian who knows first-hand what it’s like to roam the streets of Cincinnati during the brutal Midwestern winter. He finds himself in a tight spot when a group of male homeless patrons led by Jackson (an impressive performance courtesy of The Wire’s Michael K. Williams) stage an impromptu sit-in at the public library when emergency shelters are found to be at full capacity.
Meanwhile, still reeling from an earlier confrontation with overzealous district attorney Josh Davis (a hilariously smarmy Christian Slater) over an incident at the library, Stuart decides to join the men in their plight on a whim. What first began as a peaceful, occupy-style act of civil disobedience soon descends into a full-on confrontation with the city’s riot police which could see all the men arrested and thrown in jail.
Alec Baldwin stars as Detective Bill Ramstead, the sympathetic senior police detective tasked with negotiating with the occupiers, while Gabrielle Union is the implausibly dense local news reporter attempting to get to the bottom of the story.
Estevez presents a film which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. A big portion of its early part is squandered on some fairly pointless expositional material, adding almost nothing to the story.
The actor-turned-director also seems far more concerned with the minutiae of the unfolding of the story, than in the bigger picture. An earlier intimate scene featuring Stuart’s love interest Angela (Taylor Schilling) seems completely out of place and unnecessary.
Estevez puts in a suitably understated turn as Stuart. He plays him with great attention to detail, even if in the end both the role and the film are let down by a deeply contrived and cliché-laden screenplay.
Although it features some hefty Hollywood names, The Public remains a well-meaning dud. That’s not to say that its heart isn’t in the right place, it’s just that sometimes one needs more than a good premise to carry a two hour-long story.