The Public: Emilio Estevez’s all-too peaceful protest

A Cincinnati librarian stages a sit-in when his workplace becomes the only refuge for the city’s homeless in this po-faced ensemble drama.

The Public (2018)

Emilio Estevez’s The Public is, as they say, a ‘well-intentioned’ piece of work. Since writing, directing and starring in 1986’s Wisdom, Estevez has jumped behind the camera sporadically, and here, wearing all three hats again, he turns to father Martin Sheen’s native southwestern Ohio to make a movie that embodies something of the earnest, idealistic liberalism that dad made his stock-in-trade on seven seasons of The West Wing.

The film takes place largely in the confines of the downtown branch of the Cincinnati Public Library, its corridors and open spaces freely roamed by DP Juan Miguel Azpiroz’s camera, covering the comings and goings of an ensemble cast that’s like a scaled-down version of the kind Estevez put in motion in Bobby (2006). Estevez plays an ex-addict librarian who finds himself drawn to the centre of an Occupy-style sit-in staged at the library by homeless patrons, who refuse to leave at closing time for fear of being out on the street on the coldest night of the year.

The result of their protest is portrayed as a human triumph, though in fact the necessity of such a mend-and-make-do solution is an indictment of the system’s failed infrastructure – the public library isn’t the institution best equipped to serve as a shelter for the homeless, just as art isn’t the vehicle best equipped to enact political action. (There is another outlet for that: it’s called political action.)

Which is where the efficacy or even desirability of those good intentions comes into question. With all of its saintly-salty-streetwise panhandlers peacefully protesting, what The Public lacks is genuinely subversive spirit, a streak of true Buñuelian anarchy – the bad intentions that might actually make the mandarin classes shiver for their safety.


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