Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) is trying to do right every day. He is a public librarian in Cincinnati, where the paralyzing cold makes being outside a life-threatening reality for the large homeless population. The film begins with Goodson being interviewed by legal staff as the defendant in a legal case. He had asked a homeless patron with a strong body odor to leave the library. Other patrons had complained about the smell and the library policy states that people can be asked to leave under such conditions. Which patron’s rights take priority? According to the lawsuit against the library, the patron with an odor was treated inhumanely and the library and city had to settle out of court for $750,000.
The strengths in The Public revolve around the revelations of what the issues and life of a librarian are actually like. When Goodson meets his neighbor, Angela (Terry Schilling) she says, “it must be really nice to have a job where you just sit around and read all day.” This is a common misconception of our field which is both frustrating and ignorant to the range and quantity of social issues we face every day. Goodson lives in a humble apartment. He tries to help the homeless patrons whom he has befriended by giving them the little money that he makes. He is continuously bombarded with ethical issues and feels a tenuous foothold to his job because of the icy resolve of his boss, Anderson (Jeffrey Wright). Anderson has his icy resolve because he is consistently pressured by the government to tow an invisible line, and so it goes.
The weaknesses come in the number of stories that Estevez tries to tell. Besides the main story line, which is plenty enough, we are introduced to an exhausted cop Detective Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) with a missing, drug-addled son, Josh Davis (Christian Slater), a slimy prosecutor who cares more about his political campaign than the homeless lives around him and Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union) a narcissistic, night-crawler news reporter who would sooner sensationalize a story to blow it up, than show the reality which though true will receive far fewer hits. The introduction of so many charterers along with many hot button issues, fake news, ecological issues, drug abuse, etc. is more of a distraction than a supplement to the primary story which is homelessness.
How will the homeless of Cincinnati survive the night? All of the rooms in shelters are occupied. Why can’t they stay at this huge, comfortable library? It will just be sitting empty. They decide to overtake the library, staying inside after all are asked to leave for closing. With this act of revolution, all of the worlds collide. The director, the friend, the newscaster, the librarian, the cop, the politician…the second half of the film puts us inside the library with all of the action. Half of our time is on the floor with the protesters and half of the time is in the security room with the cop, the prosecutor and the library director. Offering no fake or instant solutions, the film simply encourages its viewers to see, think about and ultimately engage in finding a solution to the homeless problem. Can we offer better mental health treatment? Can we create more housing opportunities? Can we create longer hours in public spaces like libraries as emergency spots in inclement weather?
Although imperfect to a highly critical eye, there is plenty in The Public worth seeing. If more people saw films like this it may open their minds and ideologies to step back and pause on the fact that we’re all human, we all have value and we all have pain. Emilio Estevez was present at the screening I attended and he said, “There is sorrow here. No one walks pain free, none of us. Its just a matter of degrees.” That said, this is not a top heavy movie. It is infused with a steady stream of humor and intelligence and love, just like the human condition.