The Public

MPAA Rating: PG-13 // Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Release Year: 2018 // Director: Emilio Estevez
Genre: Drama

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our successes.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Anything is possible in a library, because anything is possible in the pages of a book. So perhaps it’s fitting that the setting of Emilio Estevez’s latest offering is a public library, because The Public is a small film with big dreams.

Years ago, the Cincinnati Public Library saved Stuart Goodson’s life. Now, he works there, living a life of predictable, comfortable routine. His apartment is filled with books and potted plants. He tops take-out pizza with homegrown tomatoes and basil because it’s cheaper that way. He knows the names of the homeless regulars who spend winter days inside the warm library. And even the absurd requests of patrons—“I need a color photograph of George Washington.” “Can I get a life-size globe?”—don’t faze him.

But then he gets listed as a defendant in a lawsuit against the library, starts to fall for the girl next door, and the cold snap ravaging the city claims the life of one of his homeless friends—all in the span of twenty-four hours.

As if that’s not enough to upend Stuart’s world, Jackson, a homeless veteran, announces just before closing time that the shelters are full, and since he and the other homeless regulars aren’t keen on the idea of dying from exposure overnight, they’ve decided not to leave the library.

Stuart pushes back on the idea reflexively, but comes around in a manner of minutes. Before anyone quite knows what’s happening, nearly a hundred homeless people, Stuart, and a coworker, Myra, have barricaded themselves in one corner of the library, and Stuart becomes the accidental face of this protest.

It’s also where the story starts to wander.

Up until this point, I’d bought into the film in a way that almost surprised me. The Public is the kind of film that’s not shy about the fact that it has something to say, and while more on-the-nose than a lot of films, it didn’t fall prey to the perils of preaching.

But as soon as the police, the press, and the city DA showed up, the story took a nose dive.

Basically, the DA is an asshole running a losing campaign for mayor. The negotiator, Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), is preoccupied with trying to find his son, who struggles with addiction and has gone missing. And the police want an excuse to use their riot gear.

By the time the credits rolled, I was significantly less interested in the film than I’d been when the story started. Was The Public about homelessness? Addiction? Overuse of police force? The value of public spaces? Fake news? Civil disobedience?

Yes . . . but at the end of the day, it all felt jumbled, a well-intentioned film that went off the rails by trying to tackle too much too quickly.

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