“The Public” revolves around a city library in Cincinnati and engages the audience with the polemic depiction of societal ills. It also provides for some really great entertainment. A well-rounded cast brings out of the best of writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez’s script.
There’s an entire sub-genre of films that include ensemble acting and the dynamics of parallel politics that take place within a particular institution. Think of films as diverse as John Sayles’ “City of Hope” (1991) or the Ron Howard helmed “The Paper” (1994). Perhaps not oddly, one template for plots that are constricted by time and space would be the cinema of Fritz Lang, certainly prevalent in his silent films yet pronounced in the 1956 “While the City Sleeps.” In “… City Sleeps” a newspaper staff scrambles to get the scoop on a serial killer even while the killer stalks new victims.
In “The Public,” the story concerns homelessness and corrupt city politicians, but there’s a sly nod to individual characters best exemplified by certain traits that propel the evolving twists of the main plot.
Estevez plays an employee of the downtown library branch who goes through the gamut of personal growth during the running time of “The Public.” A kind of cool bachelor who may have some hidden skeletons residing in his closet, Estevez finds himself summoned to a meeting by his supervisor (Jeffrey Wright).
Estevez and a member of the library security squad (Jacob Vargas) are being sued, as is the library, for violating the rights of a citizen who they forced to leave the building because he smelled bad (complaints from other library patrons spurred the dismissal). It didn’t help that while ejecting the man one of them remarked, “Elvis has left the building.”
Other cast members include Jena Malone as a librarian, Alec Baldwin as a police detective, Christian Slater as a scheming district attorney, Taylor Schilling as a neighbor in the apartment where Estevez lives, Gabrielle Union as a television reporter and Michael Kenneth Williams as a homeless man.
Faced with the prospect that he may lose his job over the lawsuit, Estevez finds himself in a quandary when later that night a group of homeless people take over a section of the library and refuse to leave because the temperature outside has dropped to below freezing. His superiors have told him to tell them to leave. The protesters tell him that all the shelters are full and they have nowhere to go.
It’s almost as if Estevez the director is asking the collective audience, “What would you do?” Meanwhile, Estevez the actor embodies the searching and stance that anybody faced with the same predicament would undergo.
Events progress in the worst possible way, with the police treating the incident as a terrorist insurrection. The media, live and on the scene, go along with the status quo and look for the worst in order to boost the audience of their live feed.
Before all is said and done, the incident escalates into a major confrontation involving multiple departments of local government and media scrutiny. The various members of the cast start to question their own motives. Some of the best moments, and there are a lot of great moments, involve the introspectively prodded change of character that overcomes certain players.
Even as “The Public” draws to a powerful conclusion, the viewer is astounded by a resolution that answers all the questions that were previously asked.
The 1972 pop song “I Can See Clearly Now” will be etched in your mind after seeing “The Public.”
“The Public” opens at a handful of Houston theaters this weekend.