Emilio Estevez spent 10 years working on the script for "The Public."
The final result is a well-honed story that has aged so well over the years, it works as both a reminder of the need for human kindness and a cautionary tale of what can happen when no one is willing to stand up for what is right. The writer, director and star of the film manages to check the boxes on a list of relevant issues without ever sliding into becoming preachy because he had the time to get the story right.
"The Public" refers to Cincinnati's downtown public library, where Stuart Goodson (Estevez) spends his days as an assistant librarian, bouncing between being a resource for those who still turn to the printed word and as a caretaker for the hundreds of homeless people who use the facility as a shelter during business hours. That changes when a frigid cold spell is coupled with overcrowded shelters to leave a group of 75 homeless men in need of some desperate help when night falls. As a matter of survival, they refuse to leave the library.
Such a demonstration attracts the attention of an opportunistic politician (Christian Slater), a headline-hungry reporter (Gabrielle Union) and the local police, including negotiator Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), who knows the plight of the homeless on a personal level. Goodson ends up the man in the middle.
The main focus of "The Public" is the homeless situation that touches every community. Estevez avoids getting heavy-handed and doesn't make those living on the streets to be merely victims or antagonists. He carefully shows that those who are living on the street are not to be treated like an invisible blight on society. They are people with dreams that have been sidetracked by a variety of reasons. At the same time, "The Public" doesn't hide that some of the homeless characters embrace their situation. Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), the man who organizes the sit-in, tells Goodson there is a freedom to being homeless that he likes. All he wants is a means to survive a night without fear of dying from exposure.
It's not the only social issue Estevez highlights. The political ambitions of prosecutor Josh Davis (Slater) give Estevez a broad blanket to throw over how human rights can be ignored by those in government for a good soundbite. Slater plays Davis a little too sinisterly, but he does give the movie a distinct villain.
Then there is the way the media treats the story, as local television reporter Rebecca Parks (Union) has no interest in the truth. The only thing on her agenda is to turn what is basically a quiet protest into a war zone as a way of getting some national attention.
This political house of cards would have collapsed if Estevez hadn't managed to pull together such an all-star cast for such a low-budget production. It's a joy to see Baldwin get to act again rather than doing yet another President Donald Trump impersonation. "The Public" is a reminder of the strength Baldwin can bring to a film when given a smart part to play.
The rest of the talent is equally strong, including Estevez. It's not an easy task to direct yourself but Estevez turns in a top-notch performance, fired by his passion for the subject matter. He gives in to a little bit of theatrics at the end that should have been avoided, but it's not enough to hurt the overall product and leaves "The Public" a film well worth checking out.