In less than a month, I will have my Master’s in Library Science — a degree that will let me explore preservation as well as restoration, two parts of a career I have a deep passion for. For the last 12 years, I have been writing about movies, sometimes for a living, sometimes not. So when offered to review a movie about the library system written and directed by (as well as starring) one of my favorite actors, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see how much research he put into this film. So how accurate is Emilio Estevez’s portrayal of the library system in his new film, The Public? The answer: very.
Estevez stars as Stuart Goodson, the senior librarian and manager of the Cincinnati Library. Temperatures are below freezing, and the local homeless community (including the always-great Michael K. Williams) are seeking refuge inside during library hours. It’s not a problem until one night when they refuse to leave because too many comrades have died trying to survive the cold. Goodson decides to let them stay, but a good story needs a villain, and here it’s a reporter (Gabrielle Union) who digs up Goodson’s past and spins the story so that he’s immediately accused of holding the homeless hostage. It turns out there are good reasons why people believe this to be true.
The Public is a taut, solid movie that accurately portrays the library system, mental illness, and doing the right thing. Everyone who walks through the library doors is welcome to come in to avoid the biting cold or blistering heat, play on the computers, read books, and do everything else a patron does when coming to the library. This makes the place a haven for the homeless, a lot of whom are mentally ill, though most of them are not dangerous. The movie wants to break the stigma of mental illness and does a heartwarming, successful job doing it.
There aren’t many good films about libraries. The Pagemaster starring Macaulay Culkin was once a masterpiece, but I’m not 8 anymore. The closest exceptional film about libraries we’ve had is the mesmerizing three-hour (!!!) documentary Ex Libris: The New York Library. The Breakfast Club, of course, is a classic set in a library (and starring Estevez), but it’s not about a library. Now, we finally have a superb fictional film enveloping real, everyday life at one of these institutions. The Public may be a small film with an impressive cast (Jeffrey Wright! Christian Slater! Alec Baldwin! Ones I already mentioned!), but it wears its big, beating heart on its sleeve.
Throughout the movie, the camera cuts to a statue of an isolated polar bear (an animal that lives in cold temperatures) that’s not supposed to be there but “takes refuge” because the local museum didn’t have room for it and needed the library space. The bear is a subtle metaphor for homeless who take shelter in a library because of the weather and their limited places to go.
Estevez is known for acting, but he has been directing movies since the tender age of 24 (1986’s Wisdom, co-starring Demi Moore). His efforts behind the camera have grown steadily more serious. His previous film, The Way, is an excellent journey of finding yourself. With The Public, it is about showing truths, some ugly, and some with a bright sunshiny day at the end of the tunnel, just like this movie.
Starring Emilio Estevez and Gabrielle Union. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. Rated PG-13.