The Public, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, is a profound film filled with an ensemble of characters whose lives intertwine between two days and two nights because a peaceful action of civilian insubordination inadvertently turns into a faceoff with the police when a mass of the homeless society in Cincinnati occupy the public library during the coldest night of the year. The film opens with a pleasant welcoming showing us black & white archive footage about the true essences in the vocation of a librarian: the love of books and the love of people. If you possess those two qualities, then you meet the requirements. Which brings us to Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), who enters the camera frame with a hunched posture and head tilted down, wearing a backpack and eyeglasses as he enters the public library with his identification lanyard ten minutes prior to the start of his shift. As he approaches the front door, dozens of homeless, mostly, if not all, men, sit and stand rubbing their hands together to fight the freezing cold. Stuart says hello to the regulars, and gets a rude reaction from a young man sitting against a light pole, who would later serve an integral subplot of the story.
We’re shown the streets of Cincinnati are infested with a homeless population that has no housing or shelter. Upon entering the library, Stuart de-escalates a homeless woman’s rant on her fears of Jewish people, then we meet his coworker Ernesto (Jacob Vargas), who says it’s so cold that he’s willing to go back to Jalisco, Mexico. Stuart calls his bluff, because no matter how bad it gets here, America is still the greatest country in the world. We’re not even two minutes into the film and Emilio Estevez, the film’s intellectual writer, has already touched on a homelessness crisis, the importance of books, Anti-Semitism and the gratitude of Mexican immigrants. When Stuart enters the library, we meet his superior, Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) who’s stern about having a meeting with Stuart in the board of trustees room later in the day. Stuart meets Anderson’s demand and wisely offers to speak with him immediately, which gives us a taste at his cogent reasoning methods. In the employee breakroom locker area, Stuart greets one of his inferiors, Myra (Jena Malone), who gets into an amusing debate with him about what it means to be an activist and leaving a carbon footprint on the planet. “You’ll have to stay in one place, for the rest of your life. And you’ll have to stop eating, drinking, and breathing.” Stuart tells her. Myra is adamant about being transferred off her current department to the second floor, where she can happily attend to her duties within the world of literature books. “There’s nothing but drunks and crazies down there.” He says to her. Myra thinks Stuart is referring to the homeless patrons, when he’s really speaking about the authors of the books she seeks to be surrounded by. Which is the first hint at one of the many underlying themes of this film: mental health.
Like almost every major metropolitan’s city library, the public library of Cincinnati, which spans several floors high, is infamously known to provide shelter to the homeless during the day. We meet a crew of homeless regulars, Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), Big George (Rhymefest), and Smutts (Michael Douglas Hall) who are in the bathroom, attending to their morning rituals of face washing and teeth brushing, while showing us that they’re smarter thank most people think, through arguing about the origins of cheese and referencing historical facts the average American would be completely ignorant of. When it comes time for the big noon meeting with his boss Anderson, Stuart finds himself sitting before Prosecutor Josh Davis (Christian Slater) who has high aspirations to become elected city mayor, but lacks the favor of public opinion. Davis is there to inform Stuart that the library is being sued because he and Ernesto asked a former patron to leave the premises due to his body odor, which is a violation of the 1st Amendment. We later meet Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), Cincinnati’s top crisis negotiator asking for a Leave of Absence because his drug-addled son has gone missing. This role is performed brilliantly by Alec Baldwin, with an introductory scene filled with genuine tears expressing the true emotion a loving father can have for his ailing son.
The first night in Cincinnati’s public library comes to an end. Stuart reluctancy dissipates when he kindly approves of Myra’s transfer request to the literature floor. Stuart closes the library and heads home, entering the open door of his apartment unit while holding a large pizza, not surprised to hear the loud bangs and thuds of Angela (Taylor Schilling), his building manager, trying to save money by fixing Stuart’s heater because she doesn’t want to hire a repairman to do the job. Stuart is literally pennywise, his frugality reaches the depths of ordering a plain cheese over a pizza with condiments, all to save nickels and dimes because every penny truly counts. Angela peruses his apartment as he cuts up home grown tomatoes to toss onto the pizza and throw in the oven. She finds plants scattered and books sporadic; Stuart has a copy of an analytical book about the Holy Quran. Not necessarily because he’s interested in the scripture, but because the inner jacket has been vandalized with a swastika. In addition to Anti-Semitism, Emilio Estevez has now also touched on Islamic hatred. Stuart’s character his heavily mysterious and the brilliantly crafted plot by Emilio Estevez reveals the complexities of this man by removing each layer of his personality like an onion and upon the film’s climax, we literally reach Stuart’s core. Stuart is cerebral, and according to Angela, he’s not creepy, but a little weird, after Stuart cleverly asks her to give him the latest snoop on the tenants of their building, since she’s the apartment manger and its her job to play big brother.
All of this evocative storytelling sets us up for the momentous second and third acts of a remarkable film written and directed by Emilio Estevez. In order for Prosecuting Attorney Josh Davis to become elected mayor, something big needs to happen for him. And it sure does, when the homeless population of close to 100 citizens congregate, led by Jackson, in a proposal to Stuart, to peacefully occupy the library for the night, because it’s just too damn cold outside and they refuse to freeze to death like other civilians have, in nights prior. A great use of the camera here in terms of cinematography and musical score is implemented as the camera whip-pans to a 180-degree view of all the homeless people seeking shelter inside the library, a sight Stuart’s eyes are bewildered to see. Chaos ensues as the press, led by reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union), and the police lock down the library, causing the media to deliver fake news to the city, as Josh Davis spins a story about how Stuart is the cause of this hostage crisis, painting a narrative to get the vote of the public in creating a villain out of Stuart and setting himself up to be the hero.
There is deep feeling of heartfelt emotion in the gut, that, one may receive from watching this movie, and all credit is due to the artist behind the camera, Emilio Estevez. He creates a world a wonderful characters dealing with issues that is rarely talked about and often ignored. He stimulates this effect within us through his use of musical style on the film’s score by Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom and the backdrop of Cincinnati cinematographed by Juan Miguel Azpiroz (The Way). The Public is an excellent film directed with detailed perfection and written intellectually in crafting a screenplay with enigmas brought to life by a first rate ensemble cast who valiantly express contemporary societal dilemmas while providing insight into the solutions necessary for the progression of social order within modern civilization. Imposing intellectualism is often misperceived as condescending because the viewer or listener feels patronized by the logic being spewed. The Grapes of Wrath written by Josh Steinbeck, a book that is referenced often in this film, reminds us that it’s reading material for sophomores in high-school. The quotes and references from the book provide another underlying theme of the significant film, that “Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God someday kind people won’t all be poor.” The Public is on my Top 10 list as one of the best films released in 2019. It’s currently available on Bluray and streaming with Amazon Prime.