‘The Public’ review: ’80s icon Emilio Estevez tackles blinkered bureaucrats in this high-minded social advocacy drama

'The Breakfast Club' star directs for the first time in a decade

Once a leading member of the ‘Brat Pack’ – a group of teen actors who ruled the multiplex during the 1980s – Emilio Estevez has taken on fewer projects in the last few years. In fact, The Breakfast Club star hasn’t appeared in a feature film since his under-appreciated 2010 comedy The Way. For his big screen return in social advocacy drama The Public, Estevez not only writes and acts, but takes up directing duties as well.

Set in Cincinnati during a fierce winter, The Public depicts a city in the grip of a homelessness crisis – a problem which is amplified by a lack of available shelter. The library – wherein most of the film’s action takes place – contains a stuffed polar bear on temporary secondment from the National History Museum. The symbol is obvious: libraries are endangered. Above the bear, three banners detail the instruction, ‘Open your mind’, ‘Feed your hope’, ‘Find your truth’. It sums up much of the film’s message.

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One night, librarian Stuart Goodson (Estevez) is coerced into helping a group of
homeless men take up residency in the library. Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec
Baldwin) is called in to deal with the squatters, and is aided by an ambitious mayoral candidate, Josh Davis (Christian Slater). However, Ramstead has a son who has fallen on the wrong side of the tracks as a jacked-up junkie, which complicates the matter. As a result, he clashes with Davis, whose approach to dealing with the city’s growing social problems often lacks empathy and understanding.

The Public
Alex Baldwin in Emilio Estevez drama ‘The Public’. Credit: Alamy

Politically, The Public bangs the drum for social democracy as well as positive action. Estevez makes use of the Occupy movement in order to throw shade at privileged policy-makers and government officials who bog down change in endless bureaucracy. He even takes a swipe at the news media and its tendency to exploit misery for ratings. And while his screenplay often lacks subtlety, Estevez asks a big question: how can Western societies deem themselves civilised when they allow little wriggle-room to implement compassionate domestic policies at a time of crisis?

Serious though its themes are, there is a mainstream nous that runs through the heart of this movie which belies its ethical content. Lightly comic in tone – think Steven Spielberg’s 2004 romance The TerminalThe Public is an engrossing if old-fashioned celebration of humanity. Cast strongly and stuffed with well-meaning intent, this fervid drama may be too slight to linger long in the memory. But there’s more than enough to enjoy while it lasts.

Details

  • Director: Emilio Estevez
  • Starring: Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Emilio Estevez
  • Release date: February 21
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