While people might point to more controversial directors when they think about which filmmakers you either love or hate, personally there isn’t a director quite like Emilio Estevez in completely avoiding the middle ground. His unique blend of factual and overtly sentimental direction often rubs people the wrong way as films like Bobby come across as needlessly patriotic and his last effort, the 2010 family drama The Way is either a touching religious drama or a cloying road movie. It really comes down to how you interpret Estevez’s quixotic wordview, the idealistic worldview that shines through his work.
The Public, Estevez’s latest feels like a mixture of his last two features, with the political ruminations of Bobby and the self discovery of The Way but somewhere along the way, The Public loses sight of the bigger story in search of an optimistic denoument and while unexpected moments of levity play right into Estevez’s wheelhouse, this story of a much maligned and silenced librarian works best in the depressive darkness that this story of forgotten people and institutions brings to light.
Set almost entirely within the four walls of The Cincinnati Public Library during one of the coldest winters on record, The Public follows Stuart Goodson (Estevez), a librarian trying to get by in his underappreciated role by not offending anyone, going under the radar. He has his own problems, most just alluded to but the point is, Stuart doesn’t have time for the kind of social activism this story is about. When a group of homeless people try to hold a sit in so that they can use the library as a temporary shelter from the harsh weather, Stuart finds himself in the middle of a brewing conflict between police and peaceful protesters.
What proves equally charming and effective here is a story where its own characters seem uninterested in the point, the after effects of an action most would see as political is either just survival, as is the case with most of this eclectic crowd, led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), or as an act of petty payback. Despite a political lean that is hard to ignore, Estevez is telling a story about heroes and villains in a way. One of greed and power, against community and the underdogs. While admirable it lacks the heart of The Way, instead relying on our ability to hate cartoonish political villains like Mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater) or reputation hungry newscasters like the moronic Rebecca Parks (a wooden Gabrielle Union).
Despite a strong ensemble selling a slim story, Estevez doesn’t move his story away from unfortunate tropes like two dimensional villains whose sole purpose is to bring an audience together through shared hatred, a technique that seems at odds with the kind of inclusive filmmaking he seems to be shooting for here. Despite a shooting style intent on giving his film an authentic Midwest look and feel to accentuate a story looking to highlight a growing epidemic in American society as homelessness becomes more prevalent in a country more willing to ignore it, The Public makes itself less so by highlighting the ‘bad guys’ behind the curtain instead of making them faceless and nameless in a film that has no space for them.
While it would be easy to sum it all up as narrow minded and move on, there is an ambition to Estevez’s latest outside of the narrative he is building and while it often impedes the story he is telling it is an admirable yet undercooked love letter to everything from education to the lost inquisitive nature of American society. While serving as distinct political activism it never hides away from that fact, instead using statistics and fact to give his story credibility, not shock value. It’s a gutsy move to intersperce a story with cutting judgement but Stuart’s honest transition from quiet brow beaten nobody to proud member of the undervalued only adds to the lived in quality.
While it never reaches the highs of The Way, The Public is another strong outing from Estevez who has proven to be a strong voice when it comes to ensemble filmmaking, getting the most out of his cast while using the truth of his story to give his sentimental stories life. This one might be a little too dreamy, a gleefully optimistic tale about a society missing a happy ending but at its core is a great story about underdog America with a gripping central performance by Estevez and that’s just enough to see it through.