Libraries are on the front lines in the battle for public services and Hollywood noticed

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Public
Rainbow Cinemas Studio 7

Opens May 10

It’s becoming a pattern: budget-slashing Conservative governments often go for libraries. Take Brad Wall, or Doug Ford — who just cut the Southern Ontario Library system’s funding in half. (This is the same Doug Ford who made “a buck-a-beer” his central campaign promise. Did the guy watch Idiocracy for pointers?)

The truth is, attacks on libraries are shortsighted and possibly evil. Libraries aren’t just book depositories — they democratize knowledge. Libraries are also community hubs and, more often than not, daylight shelters for the poor and homeless.

It’s really no surprise political creeps go after them to perpetuate their grasp on power.

The Public takes this very real issue and makes it “Hollywood”.

Set in winter in Cincinnati, The Public is, in the beginning, a portrait of the inner workings of the city’s central library. Every day, homeless people wait for it to open so they’ll have shelter from the blistering cold. The librarians are somewhat used to this and have developed rapport with these regulars — particularly Stuart (Emilio Estevez), who, before getting his act together, was close to sleeping on the streets.

One particularly chilly evening, the hard-luck bunch decides they’re not leaving the premises as city shelters are over capacity and the cold is deadly.

The act of civil disobedience is mistaken by those outside for a hostage situation, and Stuart is believed to be the operation’s head.

An overzealous prosecutor with political ambitions (Christian Slater) advocates for the use of force, seconded by the local news. On Stuart’s side are his boss (Jeffrey Wright), would-be girlfriend (Taylor Schilling, Orange Is the New Black) and a hostage negotiator (Alec Baldwin) who suspects his wayward son is inside the library.

The possibility of a violent end is very much present and the willingness to defuse the situation is one-sided.

Emilio Estevez gets a lot of grief as a director, but he’s not bad at it. The all-star reenactment of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination — in Bobby — was like a ’70s disaster movie and all the better for it. The more intimate The Way (starring Estevez’ dad, Martin Sheen) is an actually touching journey of self (re-) discovery.

Estevez’ writing, however, hasn’t got any better. The dialogue is TV movie-level and the characterizations are broad (Estevez’ character last name? “Goodson”. Yeesh).

Sadly, opportunities to tackle the plight of public libraries are ignored in favour of clichés (Alec Baldwin’s opioids subplot is particularly daft). Take the Christian Slater character: he could make a legitimate case that allowing libraries to serve as shelters would trigger a barrage of unintended consequences since these facilities aren’t equipped to host guests overnight. Instead, the movie presents him as a one-note insensitive a-hole.

The Public is overstuffed, but it’s earnest (expect well-meaning speeches galore) and it tries to contribute to an important conversation. That nobility of purpose makes it worth watching.

Also, that Young Guns II reunion: they’re going down, in a blaze of glory.