Emilio Estevez’s The Public is a movie with so much passion that the script exists entirely to express every possible feeling the writer-director has about the importance of the public library system. The movie opens with black-and-white footage of an old librarian infomercial; it ends with the voices of patrons searching for information accompanied by shots of the library in which the film is set.
Estevez’s lead character, Stuart Goodson, is a formerly homeless addict who found his way to sobriety and employment when he started reading during the day at the Cincinnati Public Library (“The Public”). He pays it forward to a group of homeless men who spend their days in the library but leave for shelters at night. During a particular cold snap, Goodson is forced to decide if he is willing to break the law to declare his library a temporary shelter for the men.
There are a number of other subplots that revolve around Goodson’s decisions. A local police negotiator, Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), is searching for his missing addict son; the Cincinnati prosecutor, Davis (Christian Slater), hates Goodson and is gearing up for a controversial mayoral run; Goodson’s boss, Anderson (Jeffrey Wright), is threatening to fire Goodson over an incident that got the library sued; Angela (Taylor Schilling), Goodson’s building supervisor, is interested in dating him; and Myra (Jena Malone), a fellow librarian, has to come to terms with the intersection of her low-key activism and the direct action proposed by Goodson when a group of men, led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), plead for a warm place to stay.
It’s a murderer’s row of stars mixed with independent film and television talent, but for the most part their subplots either go nowhere or exist entirely to give Goodson an opportunity to make a big speech. The law enforcement and city officials in particular get little to do and mostly peter out. Estevez’s script is so full of fight on behalf of libraries (and a more general sense of “take care of each other”), but offers little else beyond it.
Despite that, the movie still feels immersive even as it starts to feel a bit corny, like an after-school special. Part of this is that I simply enjoy looking at photographs of libraries in my free time — such varied architecture, such beautiful spaces. And the intensity of the pro-library message is one I agree with and feel gets lost. Librarians are generally low-paid and highly educated, which for the present generation means a relatively difficult standard of living balanced out by a passion for the job. The sequence where Goodson makes a statement to the press defending the men in his care by reciting from memory the key passages of The Grapes of Wrath is probably someone’s real fantasy. It feels genuine.
None of the dialogue feels particularly realistic and every character fits their archetypes. When told by Myra that she wants to work downstairs in fiction, Goodson jokes that “It’s all drunks and crazy people down in lit — and I’m talking about the authors.” It’s goofy, self-aware, the words spoken by a man excited to play a librarian in a way I’ve never actually heard the librarians and booksellers I know speak. Whatever. It makes up for what it lacks in nuance with the aforementioned tonal strength.
We benefit from movies that champion reading, books and the experience of engaging with literary giants to improve our moral outlook. At its core, The Public is about the way public spaces can bring us together and make us look out for one another, and the way that the disappearance of those spaces leaves us poorer and weaker as a society. It’s not an important movie, but its heart is in the right place and maybe that’s all that matters.