The Public begins with a narrator explaining the role libraries play in our society. He tells us a library’s doors must remain open to people from all stations in life because libraries serve as the last bastion of democracy. The film’s writer-director Emilio Estevez shows us how easily these principals fracture beneath the weight of social conflict. His new feature, The Public, throws viewers into the drama that unfolds when institutions fail to hold themselves accountable to their own moral standards.
Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) is a mild-mannered librarian working at the Cincinnati Public Library. He spends his days dealing with the public who take up much of his staff’s time with inane questions. If you think there’s no such thing as a stupid question, wait until you see The Public’s, “Can you help me find this,” montage.
We find Stuart caught up in workplace drama. The city is facing a lawsuit due to a homeless man taking offence to being asked to leave the premises because he stank. And things only get more complicated from there. Cincinnati is in the middle of a cold snap, and the city’s homeless folks show up everyday to escape the vicious weather. With all the city’s homeless shelters at capacity, they decide to occupy the library overnight. Aided by Stuart, the occupation turns into stand off when police and the local news arrive on the scene.
The Public is a mixed bag that works better as a political statement than as a film. Estevez uses The Public’s central conceit as a starting point for conversations dominating today’s social discourse. The problem is that he hammers you over the head with his messaging. This movie is about as nuanced as a Presidential rage-Tweet. Take the main character’s name: Stuart Goodson. He literally stewards people in need to shelter. And his empathy and willingness to help others makes him a good son. You can’t get any more on the nose.
Films function as allegories, metaphors, and social commentaries all the time. Doing so isn’t inherently wrong, short-sighted, or lazy. The problem is that these characters lack depth and the dialogue lacks style. We just sit and watch one-dimensional characters get their opinions off their chest.
Everything plays out like the dramatized version of a tenth-grade civics essay. An extra-woke librarian explains why she minimizes her carbon footprint but then doesn’t take up arms against the troubles occurring right in front of her. We get it, there are legions of slack-tivists who sign online petitions and fire off angry tweets rather than work on creating change IRL. It’s a valid observation but Estevez but these personal insight’s don’t make for thrilling drama.
The film’s murderer’s row of talent helps salvage the picture. Alec Baldwin plays a sympathetic police negotiator, Jena Malone is the woke librarian, Christian Slater is an oily prosecutor with an eye toward political office, Gabrielle Union is a vapid reporter, Michael Kenneth Williams is the homeless man who takes charge of the occupation, and Jeffrey Wright shows up just to look dapper in his bowtie. With its stacked cast, The Public is like the Ocean’s Eleven of social commentaries.
You can see why Estevez’s script attracted this many talented people to the project. It’s clear the filmmaker means well. I even agree with most of what he’s saying, and want to see these sensitive matters – homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, and media bias – addressed candidly in more films. Too bad the movie comes across as so damn polemical. This is the left-wing version of those Christian propaganda films that always drop around Easter.
One aspect of the movie that didn’t feel heavy-handed was Baldwin’s Detective Bill Ramstead. His son suffers from substance abuse issues, and when Ramstead shows up to diffuse the library occupation, he’s not the callous blow-hard you expect from these types of movies. Estevez includes this plot thread to remind us that we are more likely to empathize with the issues that directly affect us. It’s like how a political Death Eater like Dick Cheney went soft on gay rights issues because his daughter is a lesbian. The film tells us that we need to get out into the real world and experience issues up close and personal before casting harsh judgements.
On paper, The Public looks right in my wheelhouse. It’s a scathing social commentary, featuring a knock-out cast, and it was shot in a library – one of my favourite places to go. But I couldn’t get into this film’s simplistic moral didacticism. Although this movie doesn’t appeal to my tastes, I can see it finding an audience. The Public’s large cast of charismatic actors help mask many of the film’s flaws, and its finger-wagging themes make it a great conversation starter. But best of all, the movie has a feel-good ending that will leave viewers walking out on a high note.
- Release Date: 4/26/2019