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Film Review: “The Public” Offers a Moving Lesson in Civil Disobedience

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 4th, 2019

Film poster: “The Public”

The Public (Emilio Estevez, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.

Given Emilio Estevez’s role in the 1985 touchstone film The Breakfast Club, it is perhaps appropriate that he sets The Public in a library. In that earlier movie, if you recall, five high-school students rebel against a hierarchy that defines them by class, gender and behavior, the bulk of the story taking place inside the school library. Here, Estevez has graduated from delinquent to gatekeeper – at least at the start of the film – playing the part of head librarian Stuart Goodson at the downtown branch of the Cincinnati public library. In the middle of a brutal cold spell, with homeless people dying across the city, Goodson faces the moral dilemma of what to do when those homeless folks who are library regulars refuse to leave his building one night. The shelters are full, and they just won’t go. Should he follow orders and kick them out, or allow them protection from the elements? It’s a quandary. Doing the right thing is also one way to lose a job. What price ethics?

The beauty of The Public is the simplicity of its conceit. On the flip side, the problem with The Public is the oversimplification of the issues, along with the one-dimensional portrait of many of its characters. Beyond Goodson, whose backstory, we learn, lends him a special affinity for his indigent patrons, much of the cast is far less fleshed-out, though Estevez (also the writer) tries to add motivation to Alec Baldwin’s crisis negotiator (not that it matters, in the end, in terms of how he acts) and a few other supporting parts. Given the power of the film’s message – that principles only matter if we stick to them – the inadequacies of the script pale in comparison to the overall poignant thrust of the narrative. It’s far from perfect, but it offers solid, heartfelt drama – with a sizeable dollop of comedy, as well – wrapped up in an entertaining package.

Emilio Estevez and his large supporting cast in THE PUBLIC ©Greenwich Entertainment

The ensemble is top-notch. In addition to Estevez and Baldwin (Blind), there’s Jena Malone (Bottom of the World), Taylor Schilling (The Overnight), Christian Slater (The Wife), Gabrielle Union (Breaking In), Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar on HBO’s The Wire) and Jeffrey Wright (Hold the Dark), among others. Whatever the limitations of narrative, they are all in, fully committed to the project. At the end of the day, what resonates most is the image of resistance to a soulless system that demeans all within its grasp. “We will not go quietly into the cold, dark night,” Estevez seems to say. We can’t wish away poverty or ignore its consequences; our humanity demands a better response. The Public is a good place to start.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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