The idea for The Public is certainly a fascinating eye opener. It sees the public library system as a vestige of civic service that is on life support, but also seeing how in this Information Age, the role of it has changed to allowing access of that information to the dispossessed – as well as more essential basics such as such as shelter. Through the eyes of Cincinnati public librarian, Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez), we see the library become the centre of a non violent occupation by homeless people (lead by Michael K. Williams’ Jackson) in an attempt to avoid freezing to death during a winter cold snap. Goodson soon becomes embroiled as the protest threatens to violently spiral out of control due to a heavy handed response from a politically ambitious district attorney (Christian Slater).
This is a well-intentioned film that never goes as well as intended. Despite The Public‘s noble aspirations and important social message, it doesn’t manage to effectively engage the audience emotionally. In part this is due to the toothless direction of Estevez (The Way), as he neither manages to find the emotional core of the characters, nor the heart of the dramatic confrontation.
He has however found the intellectual argument behind the preservation of public space for society, allowing for the betterment of all. Hence The Public comes across rather as an address from a pulpit; well meaning, and heavy handed.
As such, all the characters appear merely as mouthpieces for this conceit, or straw men to rally against. Despite a wryly amused turn from the actor, Christian Slater’s DA may as well be dressed as the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, all the actors feel underutilised in this, because they are a strong cast given underwritten cliché to work with.
The frustrating thing is, that it should be easy for The Public to gain support for its message of caring for the poor and dispossessed. Yet due to its relentless “on message” attitude and ham fisted approach, it is riling rather than empathetic. Given that the narrative doesn’t really head anywhere exceptionally interesting beyond the central plot point, the film just peters out rather than acting as a rallying cry.
In the end The Public means well, but does poorly.