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The last time we saw Emilio Estevez in a library was in 1985’s The Breakfast Club. Things were never that good again for the young Brat Packer, so it could be considered a wily move that, for his fifth film as a writer/director, he has returned to the scene of the crime. The results are less than iconic this time around.
In The Public, a cloying social drama, Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, a recovering alcoholic who works at the Cincinnati Public Library. The facility, as we learn in the very first scene, serves as a de facto shelter for the homeless, who crowd the stacks during the city’s seasonal cold spells. On a particularly bitter night, the homeless regulars, led by the charismatic Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), decide to stage an act of civil disobedience. With the shelters all filled up, they face death on the streets, so they simply refuse to leave the library, setting up a tense stand-off between themselves and the authorities.
All the players who could contribute to a tense social thriller are present and accounted for, including the district attorney (Christian Slater), who worries that the crisis could ruin his political aspirations, and Detective Ramstead, the hostage negotiator (Alec Baldwin) with a missing, drug-addicted son who he suspects could be among the protestors. Naturally, Estevez assigns himself the role of reluctant hero who eventually joins the ranks of the oppressed out of solidarity and become the face of the resistance.
But Estevez is not interested in making a modern-day Dog Day Afternoon. Instead of letting the plot dictate the action, his scattered script searches for comments in every corner. In one of the more ludicrous scenes, a TV reporter gets him on the phone and gives him a chance to explain why he and the homeless have taken such drastic actions. Instead, he quotes a long passage from The Grapes of Wrath and hangs up the phone. Estevez clearly wants us to see him as a poetic soul, but it reads more like a dumb and selfish thing to do.
He should have let his central conceit do the talking, as the film’s set-up perfectly elucidates how an act of protest is so often misunderstood by the media as a stunt, when it more aptly could be described as an act of survival. Educating viewers about the utility of civil disobedience is absolutely vital, but the message was fated to be lost the minute Estevez decided to put his spotlight on the messenger instead of the message.
It is a brazen instance of white saviorism: Goodson is asked by this group of homeless men, mostly people of color, to speak on their behalf to the police and the media. By placing himself at the center, Estevez puts his film in an impossible position. He must thoroughly interrogate this saviorism for the film to achieve greatness, but to do so would be to focus entirely on the wrong person. Of all the characters in this mosaic, Goodson and Ramstead—the two most prominent white men on screen—are the ones who get the most depth, while the actual homeless are written with barely any characterization at all. Ultimately, The Public does to them just what it aims to prevent: It freezes them out.
The Public opens Friday at the Avalon Theatre.