' ' Cinema Romantico: The Public

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Public

“The Public”, which refers to the Cincinnati Public Library, does not merely view libraries as collections of books and information but something more akin to an informal social hub, a gathering place for, ahem, the public where everyone, regardless of class and race, has access to knowledge, “the last true bastion of democracy” as one character puts it, which you gives a sense of the film’s from-the-ramparts dialogue. Indeed, “The Public’s” belief in libraries is earnest, opening with a 1950s PSA video on their behalf, closing with assorted images of the building at rest, though the actual library sciences are conspicuously absent, forgoing any sequences of actual collection or preservation, never mind simple organization. Then again, “The Public” does not yearn to be Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” (2017). No, this is a conventional drama, albeit one with a blatant advocacy bent, weaving several social themes through its booklined setting. But if writer/director Emilio Estevez has passion for these themes, his filmmaking is oddly dispassionate, laid bare in a conspicuous lack of world-building.

The drama’s genesis is a supposedly life-threatening cold front that sends temperatures plunging and leaves the homeless population, with not enough city shelters to go around, shivering on sidewalks. I say supposedly, however, because even if this weather, as we are told, can kill people, characters still traipse around outdoors without scarves, while a scene in which villainous district attorney cum mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater) made to lay down a sidewalk at a pivotal moment with no coat, hat or gloves finds him looking hardly the worse for wear, giving “The Public” less the feel of an arctic adventure displaced to Cincinnati than a Hallmark Christmas Movie where the characters are barely bundled because they are actually filming in July. This overriding lack of authenticity renders Estevez’s handheld, faux-documentarian aesthetic as artificial rather than artful.

Nevertheless, it’s cold outside! And so, the homeless, who frequent the library most days anyway until the building closes, and most of whom librarian Stuart Goodson (Estevez) knows by first name, lock themselves in, a demonstration of which Goodson willingly takes part and then takes charge. This leads to a standoff between activists and the authorities, the latter represented by Davis and crisis negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), while a ratings-obsessed news reporter (Gabrielle Union) becomes something of an intermediary. It’s no secret whose side Estevez the director is on, painting the press and the police as instigators while the eventual SWAT team is just persons as props, faceless instruments of bureaucratic warfare.

The homeless, meanwhile, though nominally the whole point, are each generally limited to one dimension, like Big George. Though Che “Rhymefest” Smith imbues the role with a quiet humanity, the character’s mental illness, a serious issue you’d suspect would be paramount to such a socially conscious movie, is limited to his belief the government has implanted lasers in his eyes, which is not explored but mere set-up for a callback at an important moment. Estevez has said he sought to “celebrate the unsung”, a noble quest, which makes one wonder why he puts his character front and center most of the movie, underscored in the screenplay’s odd obsession with the vocative case, with nearly every other sentence beginning or ending with “Mr. Goodson” – things in the manner of, “What do you think, Mr. Goodson?” or “Goodson, what are you doing?” We are a long, long way from “Your Friends & Neighbors” never-actually-uttered Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary, and Jerry.

The character name and incessant recitation of it is emblematic of a messiah complex, though Estevez’s performance is less grand than that might suggest, much more blandly mellow. And that mellowness courses through the whole film. No matter how many times Ramstead asks Goodson how this is all going to end, the stakes never feel life and death, epitomized in scattered shots of the often oddly unbothered homeless protestors sitting around with their noses in books resembles a church lock-in more than any kind of citizen uprising. At least, though, they are seen reading. Goodson, despite preaching the gospel of reading throughout, never is, aside from one scene where he recites from “The Grapes of Wrath” by phone to the reporter. And if the scene is lofty, never mind corny, it’s also one of the rare occasions when “The Public” feels infused with the fury ostensibly fueling this protest, and ostensibly fueling the movie too.

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