(Image courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group)
THE PUBLIC — 3 STARS
The grounded setting for the plausible struggle over lines in invisible sand taking place in Emilio Estevez’s The Public is a normally unassuming one: an urban public library. The opening credits blend an old-fashioned PSA scouting for the love for books and the love for people necessary to be a good librarian with a hard-hitting rap hook threatening to burn books and hate on the pipe dream of education while showing the woeful streetscapes of Cincinnati, Ohio. Both lifestyles presented by that media, one inside the library and one outside, demand peace, just different levels of it and with opposing methods. Unstylish and noble just like the facility itself, the social commentary of The Public breaks all the whispering rules of compartmentalized silence. This unabashed message movie opens on April 5th exclusively in the Chicagoland area at the AMC locations in Naperville and South Barrington.
LESSON #1: THE PURPOSE OF LIBRARIES — Formally, libraries house collections of information, much of which is a public right granted by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and other subsidiary laws. Whether you come educated or uneducated, all are welcome and equal. That great line from Good Will Hunting comes to mind: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” The goal is to learn something while you’re there.
LESSON #2: IMPORTANCE OF LIBRARIES — Like many others across the country, the welcoming public library is a watering hole and gathering place. In this country, they are dedicated to being free, safe, healthy, and accessible environments. This is especially true for homeless and unemployed citizens who flock to their open shelves, doors, tools, and desks. For those folks, libraries are daily refuges from the elements with resources for community involvement and self-education while rendering them to stand as a source of amenities for basic hygiene and aid. A character in The Public touts the notion of libraries as one of the “last bastions of a free society.” Between Lessons #1 and #2, that statement is not far off whatsoever.
In The Public, the benevolent library staff of the downtown Queen City branch knows the regulars of this ilk well and vice versa. Estevez calls his own number as Stuart Goodson, the most active and dedicated of the local librarians. Principled and dedicated behind his reserved nature, Stuart is often paired with the head of security (Jacob Vargas) and Myra (Jena Malone), a mouthy Millennial and fellow librarian.
When an unseasonably frigid winter week turns worse and puts both the city’s homeless shelters and overflow locations beyond capacity, the exposing cold brings more poor visitors than usual. With nowhere else to go, one among them, a military veteran named Jackson (Michael K. Williams), organizes a peaceful protest where the dingy dozens refuse to leave the library at closing time. The begin a lock-in with the purpose of turning the place into a temporary shelter, which traps Stuart and Myra in with them. Encircling the escalating situation outside the locked doors are the library’s administrator (Jeffrey K. Wright), the hostage negotiator detective on the scene (Alec Baldwin), the local district attorney and mayoral candidate (Christian Slater), an opportunistic TV reporter (Gabrielle Union), and Stuart’s helpful neighbor (Taylor Schilling). Rather than resign himself as a hostage, Stuart emerges as the adamant proxy voice for the plight of his patrons.
The many moving character pieces of this deep ensemble each occupy a little narrative territory in that aforementioned dichotomy. Some devolve to show their true colors while others shed their exteriors or wrongs to join a better side. Naturally, because it’s not really a stretch to imagine, The Public is quick to make the political, law enforcement, and media figures into the blustering, trigger-happy, preening, and judgmental bad guys.
LESSON #3: PRACTICING AND EXUDING DIGNITY — Throughout the 122 minutes of The Public, the fine line of demarcation between antagonists and protagonists is defined by a dichotomy of dignity. The individuals that attack dignity or lack it in the movie are painted and placed in roles of supposed success. In contrast, the real folks that value dignity, protect it, and exude it are the ones with shabby looks and questionable backgrounds. Top to bottom, treat people better and those acts treat yourself better along the way.
The theatrical levels of the actors match the dimensions of their given position or material. The proverbial preachers among them are given their performance pulpits. As the linchpin and engineer together, Estevez gets the most leeway and gives a very commendable and solid performance. Jeffrey Wright and Michael K. Williams, in particular (as well as some lesser-knowns), also score strong edification points. The ranters in the periphery, like Slater, Union, Schilling, and even Baldwin are suitable but lack the extra attention at times to not seem one-dimensional. Good or bad, those blunt character and storytelling arcs show the filmmaker’s slant and bias, even if the assignments are warranted.
The number of debated points in The Public outnumber the aisles and stacks. On one hand, that crowding creates an involving and intriguing machine of tied fates and a roundtable forum sampler for the viewer. On the other, that same populated weight does make the film saturated with many bouncing tangents of rhetoric, not all of which mesh fluidly. Nevertheless, the debate balance of this brouhaha of hubris and sentiment favors the rightly idealized and positive. The Public makes a worthy stump speech for its checklist of modest societal issues. More often than not, a certain character or scenario, while sometimes exaggerated for dramatic effect, will key onto a personal experience or observation of your own.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#774)