In less than a month, I will have my Master’s in Library Science — a degree that will let me explore preservation as well as restoration, two parts of a career I have a deep passion for. For the last 12 years, I have been writing about movies, sometimes for a living, sometimes not. So when offered to review a movie about the library system written and directed by (as well as starring) one of my favorite actors, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see how much research he put into this film. So how accurate is Emilio Estevez’s portrayal of the library system in his new film, The Public? The answer: very.
Emilio Estevez’s has quite the acting resume. Starting out as an outsider, he went on to become an outlaw, a jock, a gas station attendant who fights possessed 18-wheelers, a punk who steals cars for Harry Dean Stanton (RIP), a hockey coach, and a garbageman with a hip golf clap. All of these characters are unforgettable, but in his grown-up years, Estevez wants his artistic and earnest conviction side to be seen. This started with his two-time Golden Globe nominated film Bobby, which he wrote and directed, and co-stars in, and once again he achieves an incredible feat behind and in front of the camera with his latest outing, a poignant and honest portrait about mental illness and second chances called The Public.
The Public is set in a library, and this time around, Emilio isn’t in detention for the day. He’s all grown up and running the place. His Stuart Goodson is the Senior Librarian and manager of the Cincinnati Library. Temperatures are below freezing, and the local homeless community (the always-great Michael C. Williams plays one in the group) are dying outside every day because of the weather and seek refuge inside Goodson’s library during library hours. It’s not a problem until one night they refuse to leave. Too many comrades have died trying to survive the cold. They revolt and Goodson decides to let them stay. But a good story needs drama and a villain, and here it’s the media (Gabrielle Union), who spins the story while digging up Goodson’s past, so he’s immediately accused of holding the homeless hostage. There are good reasons why people believe this to be true, and you must see the movie to learn why.
The Public is a taut, solid movie that accurately portrays the library system, mental illness, and doing the right thing. What a lot of people don’t know is libraries are a safe haven for the homeless community. Everyone who walks through the library doors will be treated just as respectfully as the next.
However, The Public’s message isn’t that libraries are where the homeless community must seek refuge, but that they are welcome to come in to avoid the biting cold or blistering heat, play on the computers, read books, and do everything else a patron (fancy library term for “customer”) does when coming to the library.
The Public also wants you to know that yes, a lot of homeless are mentally ill, but that just because someone suffers from mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they are dangerous. The Public wants to break the stigma of mental illness and does a heartwarming, successful job doing it.
As a film fanatic and soon-to-be-librarian, there are not many good films about the library. (Pagemaster starring Macaulay Culkin was once a masterpiece, but I’m not eight anymore.) Before The Public, the closest exceptional film about the library we had is the mesmerizing three-hour (!!!) documentary, Ex Libris: The New York Library. (The Breakfast Club, of course, is a classic, but it’s not about the library.) Now, we finally have a superb fictional film about the library enveloping real, everyday life at one of these institutions to watch. The Public may be a small film with an impressive cast (Jeffrey Wright! Christian Slater! Alec Baldwin! Ones I already mentioned!), but it wears its big beating heart on its sleeve.
After seeing The Public, a colleague pointed out something I completely missed. Throughout the movie, the camera cuts to a statue of an isolated polar bear (an animal that lives in cold temperatures) that’s not supposed to be there, but “takes refuge” because the local museum didn’t have room for it and needed the library space. The bear is a subtle metaphor for homeless who take shelter in a library because of the weather and their limited places to go. Very astute, Emilio.
Estevez is known for acting, but he has also has an impressive resume behind the camera with eight features films directed, six written. Estevez’s first foray into writing, directing, and starring in his own films began at the tender age of 24 with 1986’s Wisdom co-starring Demi Moore. His more recognizable writing-directing-starring efforts are Men at Work (co-starring his brother Charlie Sheen), Bobby (starring every actor on earth), The Way (starring his father, Martin Sheen), and now, The Public, his second-best effort as a writer-director.
Since making Bobby, Estevez wants you to take him seriously as a filmmaker, and he has achieved that with his last three theatrical films (Bobby, The Way, The Public). His previous film, The Way, is an excellent journey of finding yourself. With The Public, it is about showing truths, some ugly, and some with a bright sunshiny day at the end of the tunnel, just like this movie.
Editor’s Note: The edited version can be found in/on Fort Worth Weekly.