Emilio Estevez, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Michael K. Williams
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…it’s all well intentioned, it just overeggs the pudding.
To risk sounding like a public service announcement, long before a large portion of the population got their news and education from Twitter, there was – and still is – a place where everyone from every walk of life could gather to learn for free: Your local library! With information readily available at our fingertips, it can be easy to forget what a difference these buildings make to students, teachers, children, pensioners and, in the case of The Public, the homeless.
Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, the film centres on a large public library in Cincinnati where good natured librarian, Stuart (Estevez), works. Unsubtly given the surname Goodson, Stuart is a fair but firm employee who is happy to turn a blind eye to the homeless congregation that use the library as a place to camp and stay warm during the cold winter days.
With a vicious cold snap looming large over the city, the usually benevolent mass, led by ex-veteran Jackson (Michael K. Williams), decide that it would be better if they stayed after closing time. Stuart, having been slapped on the wrists for evicting someone previously, decides to stay with them leading to the police becoming involved.
The Public doesn’t offer up any ambiguity in its morals. You are either on the right side of history and Stuart’s band of merry men, or you’re staring down the barrel of the wrong side led by the opportunistic DA (Christian Slater) and his crisis negotiator lackey (Alec Baldwin).
Stuart’s place of work is a clear metaphor for the US political landscape. Estevez is the idealistic grassroots movement wanting to change the world for the better, whilst Slater is the Trump stand in, reaching out for the low hanging fruit that will help him in his campaigning to be Mayor. The media, in the shape of a local reporter (Gabrielle Union) is easily swayed by whatever news story will get her the most viewers. Yes, someone even utters the phrase ‘fake news’ when Slater’s DA manages to convince the public that Stuart is holding a room full of burly men hostage.
Like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, it’s all well intentioned, it just overeggs the pudding. The characters are so black and white, there’s no real surprise when they do anything the script asks of them. Heck, the only morally ambiguous character is a racist homeless woman who is quickly swept out of the narrative before anything major can happen.
All of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, The Public is a passionate plea for compassion in 2019 and a hope to find a middle ground where everyone, particularly the impoverished, benefits.
If we push cynicism to one side, and The Public makes it fairly easy to do so, there’s no denying this a warm-hearted film that continually asks ‘why?’ Why can’t people use the library at night if it keeps them safe? Why can’t the media stop fighting over every little scrap that’s thrown their way? Why can’t we just try and be nice to each other? You’d have to be pretty stone-hearted to turn away and say, ‘not my problem, Estevez.’