Monday 11 October 2021

Movie Review: The Public (2018)

A drama about the plight of the homeless, The Public tackles a serious subject with sensitivity and some humour, but unsurprisingly flounders for a resolution.

Cincinnati is in the grips of a cold snap. Librarian Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), recovering from a troubled personal history, is on friendly terms with the community of homeless people who seek warmth at the Central Public Library. Junior librarian Myra (Jena Malone) and security officer Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) work with Stuart, and Anderson (Jeffrey Wright) is their boss. After Stuart befriends neighbour Angela (Taylor Schilling), his job is threatened by district attorney Josh Davis (Christian Slater), who blames Stuart for exposing the library to a lawsuit launched by a mistreated customer.

On a particularly chilly night, homeless man Jackson (Michael K. Williams) organizes a group of homeless people into refusing to leave the library at closing time, insisting it should remain open as a shelter. An unusual siege ensues, and police crisis negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) is called in. Stuart is thrust into an unexpected media spotlight and wrongly portrayed as a hostage taker by conceited local television reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union).

Packed full of plot, characters and incidents, the first half of The Public is full of ambition. Writer, director, co-producer and star Emilio Estevez holds nothing back in spotlighting the now tragically prevalent social failure of homeless people in ever larger numbers struggling for the basics of survival. The setting is Cincinnati, but the story equally applies to many other major cities.

With notable efficiency, Estevez ties together several key characters to the core topic. Stuart himself is not far removed from a life on the streets. Neighbour and new romantic partner Angela is still batting down corrosive addictions that bedevilled her past. And crisis negotiator Bill Ramstead is looking for his missing son in church basements. 

Characters like library boss Anderson and junior librarian Myra are full of good intentions to save the world and save others, but their actions in response to the library takeover will define their essence. Meanwhile, wannabe mayor Josh Davis is the representation of nauseating politicians seeking power through the expediency of soundbites and simplistic solutions to complex problems.

The script is unfortunately less successful in defining the homeless group. They are scrubbed clean of most dangers and reduced to harmless tourist depictions. The more fundamental narrative weaknesses come to the fore after the library takeover. Estevez does not seem to have a clear course to chart, and the second half drags, unnecessarily stretching the running time to over two hours, with a lot of people sitting around and not doing much of anything.

An intractable problem predictably settles for a climax exposing, if only for a night, the failure of policy makers to care for their community's most vulnerable members. The Public strips away the excuses, but also stalls in the stacks.

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