In many countries, homelessness is a big problem. But the scale of the issue hasn’t led to a lot of films exploring it. Emilio Estevez – making his first feature since 2010 – tries to redress the imbalance at least a little with The Public. This ambitious and rather surprising film deftly delves into the problem through the microcosm of one brutal night in Cincinnati.
Estevez pulls quadruple-duty as producer, director, writer and star of the film. This is obviously a passion project for him and he mostly pulls it off. Plainly, he wants to make political points with the film and largely delivers; though some of his points will have greater relevance for American audiences. And occasionally, the political message gets in the way of the narrative.
Stuart Goodson (Estevez) is a supervisor at the Cincinnati Public Library. Many of the library’s patrons are homeless. Stuart and his security head Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) are under fire for the way they treated one homeless person – who has since brought a lawsuit against the city. City Attorney (and political hopeful) Josh Davis (Christian Slater) blames Stuart and Ernesto for the hefty settlement they city will have to pay. That gives the board a reason to get rid of Stuart, even though board member Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) wants to stand by him.
But lawsuits and board meetings are put aside when – on the coldest night of the year – a group of homeless people led by Jackson (Michael K. Williams) refuse to leave. Barricaded in the library, Stuart and library assistant Myra (Jena Malone) are in a tight spot. When the media arrive however, what was a tense situation becomes a full-blown incident. Police arrive and call in negotiator Det. Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) to broker an outcome. But with Stuart sympathising with the group and Davis urging the use of force, the situation can only escalate.
For the most part, The Public is gripping drama relieved by some deftly placed humour. It reminded me a little of Dog Day Afternoon. Eztevez handles the “hostage” drama smartly. But some of the sub-plots waver. That the police negotiator should be looking for his runaway son among the city’s homeless seemed a little too convenient. Also, the “romance” of sorts between Stuart and Angela (Taylor Schilling) felt forced to me. That said, Estevez delivers some great moments; none more so than the completely unexpected ending.
Wearing his actor’s hat, Estevez delivers a convincing performance as the mild-mannered but principled Stuart. Christian Slater (The Wife) is a little less convincing as Davis (who’s basically Stuart’s polar opposite), though that may be a product of a script that needed a “big” bad guy. Jeffrey Wright (Game Night) is excellent in an understated performance as Anderson. Jena Malone (Nocturnal Animals) has some nice moments at the start of the film, but sadly her character drifts off in the second act. Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) plays Ramstead brilliantly; while Michael K. Williams (SuperFly) mesmerises as the charismatic Jackson.
Perhaps Emilio Eztevez’s ambition wasn’t fully realised in the end product; but I’d rather someone aim high and fall a bit short than to play it safe. While it’s not perfect, The Public is still smarter and more compelling than a lot of the US “summer” movies going around at the moment.
Director: Emilio Estevez
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Michael K. Williams, Christian Slater, Jena Malone
Release Date: 1 August 2019
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television