Capitalism is voracious in its single-minded pursuit of profit, particularly the late capitalism of the 21st century. There is a reason Marx likened capital to a vampire whose thirst could not be slaked. What makes this avaricious drive to expand so stark – and so wrongheaded – today is how much more we know now about the destruction wrought by bottom line-driven economic growth. We understand the horrifying labor conditions in the sweatshops of El Salvador and Bangladesh. We are aware that our electronics are only possible because of forced labor in the coltan mines of the Congo. We know that the ice caps are melting, that fossil fuel extraction and consumption is causing a mass extinction and that climate change is generating ever more dangerous weather. And yet…capital continues grabbing more and more, often with our tacit acceptance because who are we to resist the comic-book-villain-esque capitalists?

Public Trust is a documentary that examines this odd matrix of relationships that exist in late capitalism involving the natural world, capital’s vampiric thirst (and the villainy of its boot-licking thralls, too), and the everyday consumer-citizens of the US who simultaneously resist and cooperate with capitalism’s increasingly reckless death drive. The film examines the fight over the massive landholdings – 640 million acres – of the US federal government.

This was something that was not really even a debate until the Reagan administration, but has now become one of the more passionate topics in US politics. As Public Trust makes plain, what is so noteworthy about this particular debate is that the vast majority of the US public is all on the same side: most US-Americans want to see the US government continue to maintain the public lands it holds. Most US citizens want to keep these spaces as they are. On the other side of the debate is the extraction industry who want to mine, log and frack US public space for the benefit of their shareholders. The only reason it is a political issue at all is that a coterie of spineless US politicians is willing to betray the wishes of voters and give over public lands to corporate interests.

That is the quite straightforward story of Public Trust. The film focuses on a few key battlegrounds: Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It puts viewers on the ground with local activists – often indigenous people – who are resisting government efforts to allow oil, uranium and copper mining in these locales. The narrative is a bit unfocused and occasionally veers too hard into pathos, but the film’s argument is convincing and compelling, its characters memorable and its message clear. And the photography here is spectacular. The US has an immense wealth of natural beauty, and Public Trust does a superb job of capturing it in flyover shots of the caribou in the ANWR, close-up images of the petroglyphs of Bears Ears and dozens of other jaw-dropping locations.

Public Trust is crafted to appeal to the masses. Like so much politically inflected media in the Trump era, it is a sober, moderate call for a return to reason, good sense and common decency. There is nothing extreme here and it is difficult to discern how any reasonable person could disagree with the film’s thesis that it is better for the US public to control federal land than for a couple of dozen greasy tycoons to obliterate it so that they can buy a third yacht. But, hey, in 2020, that seems to be a succinct summary of most political discussions in the US. As such, the film is likely more appropriate for those who are less politically engaged or less involved in environmental justice or indigenous peoples’ struggles.

Crafted to appeal to the masses, the film is a sober, moderate call for a return to reason, good sense and common decency.
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Reasonable Anger
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Martin Eden

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