Movie Review: The Public (2018)

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As the third floor librarian of the Cincinnati Public Library working in the Social Sciences Department, the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, history, economic, public health, and more are Stuart Goodson's domain.

However, as we see shortly into The Public from writer-director-producer Emilio Estevez (who also plays Goodson), the librarian's experience with these subjects goes far beyond the printed page as everyday his workplace transforms into a veritable homeless shelter, which gives citizens freezing on the streets of Cincinnati a warm place to go for the day.

Bringing awareness to an epidemic that plays out in public libraries across the country, the film, which was inspired by an article that Salt Lake City Public Library Deputy Director Chip Ward wrote for "The Los Angeles Times" in 2007, became a twelve years in the making indie passion project for Estevez.

Without the support of the local government, which instead turns a blind eye to the crisis, Goodson spends his shifts playing the role of friend, social worker, referee, and first-responder to a group of homeless patrons he knows almost as well as the books on the library's shelves, letting instinct and kindness be his guide.

But when a deadly cold front hits Cincinnati and fills every shelter in the area, Goodson finds himself caught in the middle of a righteous act of civil disobedience as a group of roughly one hundred men refuses to leave the warmth of the library at the end of the day.

Taking a few moments to weigh the pros and cons of the action, which arrives in the middle of a frivolous lawsuit against the Cincinnati Public Library, Goodson decides to risk everything and join the men's cause in the hopes that the mayor will sanction the library an emergency shelter for the night.

Having proclaimed that books saved his life, even though he understands they're facing an uphill legal battle, Estevez's aptly named Stuart Goodson knows that as a good son adhering to the rights of the nation's founding fathers in his role as a librarian, sometimes you have to stop stewing in the arts and stand up for what's right.

Filled with symbolism, speechifying, and signposting, The Public wears its heart in each one of cinematographer Just Miguel Azpiroz's frames. And while Estevez raises a number of valid and urgent points from start to finish, I couldn't help but wish that the film would have woven its main thesis into a much more organic narrative tapestry than it ultimately does.

Rather than draw us into The Public with character-driven storytelling, we're repeatedly told how to feel as (even with the best of intentions) Estevez introduces and then abandons important subtopics from the opioid crisis to media manipulation throughout the film's roughly two hour running time.

A work with a lot on its mind and all of it worthy of deeper discussion, the decision to turn Ward's article into a fictional feature is ambitious indeed since — as someone not only passionate about libraries but who also grew up in and around them — I believe there's enough here to warrant an HBO documentary miniseries.

Buoyed by a terrific turn by Estevez (in his strongest role in years), the film boasts a who's who cast of terrific and largely criminally underutilized character actors including Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Slater, Michael Kenneth Williams, Taylor Schilling, Gabrielle Union, and Alec Baldwin that's sure to delight fans.

Though continuing Estevez's great tradition of making socially conscious features like The War at Home and complex Altmanesque ensemble pictures like the masterful BobbyThe Public falls short of those films by too often spelling out key plot points and character reveals as if holding up a sign at a protest rally.

But thanks to Estevez's wise decision to add levity and laughter to the issue to try to appeal to a wider audience, it's one cause we'd be proud to stand up for along with Goodson and The Public since in the end, humanism should be in all of our domains.

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