In the new political drama, The Public, a tragic combination of bitterly cold weather and overflowing homeless shelters has led to an ever-growing body count of people who’ve found themselves sleeping in the freezing cold.
Seeking warmth, people are flocking to the Cincinnati Public Library, which is well acquainted with the city’s homeless population. Emilio Estevez (who wrote and directed the film) plays Stuart, a local librarian with a checkered past. Stuart is on a first-name basis with many of the homeless men who use the bathroom facilities.
He’s also, however, already in legal trouble for having a homeless man escorted out of the library after other patrons complained of his body odour. He’s a man torn between trying to maintain a level of decorum in the workplace (which he views as sacred) and trying to respect the rights of all of its patrons.
Unluckily for Stuart, things are about to get a lot more complicated.
The cold-snap propels the homeless population to make the reasonable leap from spending their days in the library to spending their nights in the library. When their leader, Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), reveals to Stuart their plan to stage a peaceful protest by camping out in his workplace after hours, Stuart is forced to pick a side.
He quickly replaces Jackson as the face of their act of civil disobedience and becomes the head correspondent between the protestors and the head police negotiator, Bill (played by Alec Baldwin).
Beginning with the retro explainer video that opens The Public, the film obviously wants you to feel the role and value of public libraries for people of all walks of life. People who arrive there seeking all manner of things from information and answers to a free internet connection and a clean bathroom and sometimes heating too.
But this mawkish message only scratches the surface of what The Public is trying to convey. Jam-packed into the film’s 119 minutes are more hot topics and characters than it knows what to do with.
In addition to the value of libraries, The Public broaches a laundry list of contentious issues including homelessness, mental illness, addiction, individual vs collective power, fake news, political power, freedom of information, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and what it means to be free at all.
Adding to Estevez and Baldwin, there’s a large ensemble cast that includes a host of terrific but under-utilised actors playing underdeveloped characters. To name just a few, there’s Jena Malone as a fellow librarian and eco-warrior, Gabriel Union as a self-important news reporter, Taylor Schilling as Stuart’s pretty Building Manager, Christian Slater as the arrogant local District Attorney and Jeffrey Wright as the conflicted head librarian.
The pacing is all over the place and the film grapples with how to use the talent at its disposal to tell an interesting story that makes any real political points.
It’s the movie equivalent of ambitiously borrowing a tall stack of library books to read on your holiday, with pure intentions to finish them all, but ending up reading only a few pages of most of the books before returning all but one unfinished.
Fortunately, the charming cast and the unpredictable ending of the one storyline that hangs in there saves The Public from feeling like dead weight you wished you hadn’t lugged around.
The library may be a place you go to find answers, but don’t expect any from The Public.
SEE IT if…
You get a seniors’ discount
The library is your second home
SKIP IT if…
The Fast and the Furious series is your style
You’re hoping to relive The Breakfast Club
It gets 2.5 stars out of 5.
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