The Public

 

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A night to remember plays out in the unusual setting of a public library.

   

Public, The

Alec Baldwin (centre)

  

The actor Emilio Estevez has long had a second string to his bow as a director and furthermore those films that he has directed (2006's Bobby probably the best known) have frequently used screenplays that he has written himself. All three of his skills are on display in this new work which develops a fictional story to bring home issues about those reduced to living on the streets. Estevez sets his tale in Cincinnati and plays the central role of Steve Goodson, a librarian working in the downtown public library there. It is a building used during the day by many homeless people and it is quite understandable when, at a time of exceptionally cold weather, they refuse one evening to leave at closing time and instead occupy the third floor. In addition to keeping them warm for the night, this action is taken as a way of bringing home to the public the fact that the shelters made available by the authorities in the city are wholly inadequate.

 

Underlining the plight of such people is Estevez's prime purpose here, but the manner in which the situation develops allows also for some biting portrayals of opportunists ranging from a prosecutor (Christian Slater)  to a TV interviewer (Gabrielle Union): the former sees intervention in the incident as a means of putting himself before the public in a way calculated to help his mayoral chances in an upcoming election while the latter is more interested in getting an exclusive story than in clarifying the truth about what is happening - and this at a time when the event is falsely being built up and publicised as a hostage situation requiring the services of a police negotiator (Alec Baldwin). Such material with its blend of strong drama and social comment is not so far removed from the kind of Oscar-worthy tale that might once have been made by, say, Sidney Lumet. But what has to be recognised here is that Estevez, without in any sense forfeiting his sincerity, has written a piece designed to provide popular entertainment alongside its attempt to say something aimed at the conscience of the nation.

 

Given that chosen level, it is not too difficult for much of the time to accept a certain degree of contrivance in the storytelling (it is for example characteristic that The Public should give its hero a potential romantic interest in the person of a neighbour (Taylor Schilling) who just happens to be headed for the library on the night of the incident). But, if that is the nature of the movie, the later stages cannot quite so readily be justified. With a running length of almost two hours, the film comes to feel over-extended with material concerning the missing son of the negotiator taking up time unnecessarily and leading to rather unconvincing changes of heart on the part of the father that influence his attitude to Steve Goodson. Furthermore, the climax when it comes may illustrate how the protestors can make memorable headlines but it is at heart no more convincing than Steve quoting from "The Grapes of Wrath" when seen on television instead of speaking out clearly about what is really happening. Nor is banality entirely avoided elsewhere, as witness the repeated references to the fantasy of a mentally unbalanced homeless man that he has laser eyes that kill people if he looks at them for too long. But the concern behind the film is genuine and, with a cast that also includes Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Michael K. Williams, The Public is never let down by its players.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright, Michael K. Williams, Che 'Rhymefest' Smith, Jacob Vargas, Richard T. Jones.

 

Dir Emilio Estevez, Pro Lisa Niedenthal, Emilio Estevez, Alex Lebovici and Steve Ponce, Screenplay Emilio Estevez, Ph Juan Miguel Azpiroz, Pro Des David J. Bomba, Ed Richard Chew and Yang-Hua Hu, Music Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom, Costumes Christopher Lawrence.

  
E2 Films/Hammerstone/Living the Dream Films/Cedarvale Pictures-Parkland Entertainment.
119 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 21 February 2020. Cert. 15.