The Public is like some of the characters in the film: well-meaning with a vague idea of what to do but saddled with issues that get in the way.
Cincinnati Public Library manager Stuart Goodson (writer/director Emilio Estevez) knows the homeless population that takes up daily residence at the Central branch. Most are pleasant if a bit eccentric, though some have their quirks like singing I Can See Clearly Now while completely naked. His second in command, Myra (Jenna Malone) wants off their floor so she can be around better books and presumably better people despite being the ultimate in woke Millennial.
Stuart, a man who keeps to himself, is hesitant about starting a romance with his apartment repairwoman Angela (Taylor Schilling), but he has more important worries. A mentally ill homeless man has managed to sue the Library along with Goodson and Security head Ernesto Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) for violating his rights after once forcing him to leave due to his odor. This does not sit well with District Attorney Josh Davis (Christian Slater), who is a tight race for Mayor.
There's been a fierce cold snap in Cinci, and some of the homeless are freezing to death. With the shelters full and facing yet another powerful cold night, one of the homeless, Jackson (Michael K. Williams) decides to 'Occupy' the library along with a large group of homeless men (oddly, there are no women in the group). They unitarily declare the Library an emergency homeless shelter and will stay the night.
Goodson, perhaps reluctantly, sides with them. Myra is not pleased with this, and Library Director Anderson (Geoffrey Wright) is most certainly displeased. Davis is downright livid, so they call in negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) to get the homeless out. Soon the news spreads, bringing ambitious reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union), who spins this into a hostage situation. Goodson's past and secret pre-Library life emerge, and the various factions attempt to use this situation to their own ends good and bad.
That being said, I think The Public stumbles in Estevez's rather heavy-handed and simplistic manner. Subtlety is not his forte, and just about everything in The Public has an almost self-righteous tone. "Stuart Goodson": because he's a 'steward' and a 'good son' (I figure 'Goodman' was too much even for him). "Ramstead": because he will 'ram' into a tense situation. Giving Stuart a past that makes him sympathetic to Jackson and Company.
As if that was not bad enough, Estevez overloads The Public with a lot of almost laughable turns. We get a subplot of Detective Ramstead's son Mike (Nik Pajic), who has fallen into drugs and life on the streets. You know where this will end up and one is astonished that Estevez would think this is somehow original or even necessary. The Angela/Stuart romance seems too a bit of a distraction.
This sense of moral preening seeps into the performances, for the roles are more types than people. Union, an exceptionally talented actress, fares worst. Her reporter is so obviously uninterested in anything apart from the career boost this will give her that it comes through in her performance. Slater too is one-note: so overtly evil that it might have done him good to slap on a mustache to which to twirl.
The 'good guys' such as Williams' Jackson, forever pleasant to "Mr. Goodson", are equally painted with a broad brush. Despite vague objections as to why occupying the library overnight is not a good idea, the film pretty much papers over them.
As a side note, the portrayal of the homeless in The Public seems almost cutesy. If we believe the film, at 1:30 in the morning the occupiers are not sleeping. Instead, they are eating pizza, playing games and going online. It makes it look like a big old slumber party. Somehow, there's an unreality to it all which makes it more absurd.
Again, The Public has a message and touches on issues that 'the public' should think more on. In that sense, it does well. However, with too many clichés and refusal to consider any side other than its own, The Public stumbles a bit to where it's worth checking out but not keeping.