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Rarely have I been more frustrated by a documentary production’s formal choices and how they interfere with the engaging content of the story they’re trying…
“The Public” is a movie that should’ve rung my moviegoing pleasure centers like Waterford crystal bells. But it’s never as coherent as it needs to be, several of its major characters are psychologically (or perhaps just dramatically) incoherent, and the sheer number of bad choices sinks it in the end. Explaining how this film goes wrong requires describing plot twists that I’m sure the fimmakers would rather I didn’t mention, so if you haven’t seen the movie but intend to, you should put this piece aside and come back to it later, if the summary hasn’t already put you off watching it.
Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who also plays the lead role, it’s about homeless men taking over Cincinnati’s central public library to protest a lack of available beds that would prevent them from freezing to death. Estevez is Stuart Goodson, a librarian who’s about to be pushed out because a homeless man he ejected for excessive body odor turned around and sued the library system, Stuart personally, and Stuart’s chief of security Ernesto (Jacob Vargas), resulting in a $750,000 settlement.
This is the first of many decisions at the writing level that muddies what might otherwise have been a rousing story of a worker drone belatedly finding his conscience and standing up against The Man. Stuart eventually becomes the point person for the library takeover (with Michael K. Williams’ loquacious homeless man Jackson inspiring the action, and serving as Stuart's advisor as he talks to police). That Stuart’s on the verge of getting fired when the takeover occurs, and is revealed to have been a homeless addict himself at one point, makes the film less-than-useful as agitprop that could show why people ought to care about society’s least fortunate. Stuart’s not the last person you’d imagine would get involved in this kind of thing, he’s (retroactively revealed as) the most likely, and once we know his full story, the big dramatic questions become, “Why did Stuart spend so many years not getting involved?” That's not the sort of question we want an idealistic movie like this, which quotes John Steinbeck and references the French Revolution, to ask. (The answer to that question is probably, “He was grateful to have a good job and didn’t want to get fired,” but that could also be true of a man with no such past.)
This is only the most obvious of the movie’s problems. “The Public” is brazenly a throwback to troublemaking 1970s dramas like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The China Syndrome” and “Network,” with a touch of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries about how government policy and economic inequity affects citizens’ lives. It starts out feeling like an anthology that doesn’t bill itself that way, with several major characters dealing with personal crises in parallel subplots. Estevez’s script has all the hallmarks of a mid-budget independent film that tried to “beef up” the supporting roles to attract a big-name cast and secure financing, but never figured out how to bring the individual stories to a satisfying close, much less thematically dovetail them all with the film’s main order of business: showing the systemic failure of American urban life and the radical, if doomed, actions required to call attention to them.
Christian Slater plays a smarmy mayoral candidate who is ordered by Stuart to spend five minutes lying on the sidewalk (to teach him empathy). But not only does the movie fail to show the character becoming more enlightened as a result, it fails to capitalize on the ironic/comedic gold it has right in front of it: some people are simply incapable of empathy or growth, and unfortunately they’re often the same people who crave and attain power. Alec Baldwin has a few touching moments as a depressed, divorced police negotiator who’s at wit’s end because his homeless addict son has gone missing; but aside from one powerful scene when he complains that the homeless only make demands and take things and never actually change their behavior—and we realize that he’s projecting his rage about his son onto the world at large—there’s no depth. And the conclusion of his subplot has no bearing on anything happening inside the library.
The less said about the female characters, the better. Jena Malone’s junior librarian is on hand mainly to be mocked by Stuart for her lack of real political committment—itself a bitter joke on Stuart, considering how he’s been keeping his head down—but when the occupation begins, she spends the middle part of the film stuck in an office with cops and politicians, rolling her eyes, then goes outside and becomes a glorified bystander. Taylor Schilling is stuck playing another glorified bystander, Stuart’s love interest, a gorgeous, spacey building superintendent and recovering drug and sex addict. She sleeps with the hero immediately after hearing the bare outlines of his story, then helps get video to a TV reporter (Gabrielle Union) who has been broadcasting the lie that Stuart is holding homeless people against their will. The reporter is easily the movie’s worst character, a vacuous careerist in the vein of the craven fool from "Die Hard." The movie makes it seem as if she’s the only local TV reporter in town, and has the Schilling and Malone characters expend considerable energy trying to make her see the error of her ways instead of walking five feet to the left and talking to a different reporter on the scene.
Jeffrey Wright makes a strong impression as Stuart’s supervisor and mentor, despite having only a few scenes. He’s a vivid, emotionally direct performer, and when the character rejects his fellow authority figures, walks into the homeless encampment, helps himself to a slice of pizza, and asks to sit in an unoccupied chair, you may imagine how things might have been with him playing Stuart instead of the writer-director, who’s sensitive and sensible but lacks that Electrified Everyman spark that the hero needs. The ending seems to be aiming for a touch of the “O Captain, My Captain” finale from “Dead Poets Society,” but mainly comes across as ungainly and ill-advised.
There’s always been a shortage of films about the body politic, and they’ve become nearly nonexistent in the age of tentpole franchises dominating theaters. It’s a shame this one isn’t better, especially considering how much care it takes to get the small details of public libraries right, including the way that librarians have been forced into acting as social workers because the American government has almost abdicated the responsibility of caring for society's most vulnerable. That it beat the odds just by existing makes its failures sadder.
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