starring Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling
written and directed by Emilio Estevez
by Alice Stoehr "They're on the wrong side of the law for all the right reasons," runs the tagline for Wisdom (1986), Emilio Estevez's directorial debut. The star of Repo Man and The Breakfast Club was in his mid-twenties when he cast himself opposite then-fiancée Demi Moore, the two of them playing Robin Hood figures on a crime spree. In the decades since, he's had a patchy career as a filmmaker, garnering few awards and little acclaim for one passion project after another. Reviewing the period drama Bobby in 2006, critic A.O. Scott wrote that Estevez "sets himself a large and honorable task. It is important to appreciate this in spite of his movie's evident shortcomings." The same applies to The Public, in which Estevez stars as Stuart Goodson, a Cincinnati librarian fretting over the ethics of his job. One winter night, his branch's homeless clientele stages a sit-in over the city's lack of shelters, and as the police and press get involved, the library becomes a political battleground. Estevez's ambitions are transparent: This is a Capraesque fable for our troubled times, with Stuart as its Mr. Smith or Longfellow Deeds. Most of the film takes place over a matter of hours in a single location, and each figure in the stand-off symbolizes a different ideological perspective. Some sample dialogue: "The public library is the last bastion of true democracy that we have in this country." Lest the viewer get confused.
Although his passion as a filmmaker is tangible, Estevez's work on screen is ruinously self-conscious. Everything down to a momentary stammer while reciting from The Grapes of Wrath feels affected for the sake of sentiment. As a director, he's haphazard; he and Spanish cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz, with whom he worked on The Way (2010), make heavy use of the fluorescent lighting in Cincinnati's actual downtown library. So the film looks drab, when not downright unpleasant. Over-the-shoulder shots are especially crude, with the blurry actor in the foreground typically obscuring half the frame. Composition is not a priority here. This is, instead, a film of themes: books are good, poverty is bad, and the one can help alleviate the other. Every idea's overt, whether through broad allusions to "fake news" and police violence or fanciful plotting whereby good intentions win the day. But lines like "Books helped me get sober" aren't half as powerful as a stray announcement that's faintly audible early on over the library's PA system: "A training course on how to administer Narcan will be taking place this Saturday." That grain of real-life detail hinting at the prospect of opioid overdose stands in sharp contrast to the film around it. Though actor, writer, and director Emilio Estevez might again be "on the wrong side of the law for all the right reasons," right reasons alone don't make for good art.