Public Trust

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Public Trust Movie Poster Image
Engaging docu about outdoor access sparks critical thinking.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 97 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

For decades, U.S. presidents have ensured that portions of the country are left in their natural state and free to use by the public. That's changing as corporations try to get ahold of the land for monetary gain, and it's up to Americans to raise their voices to stop it.

Positive Role Models

People of various political persuasions work for greater good to tirelessly gather information, inform U.S. public, and stop the U.S. government from giving up federal lands to privatization. Indigenous Americans stand up and speak up against government giving away the land they rely on for survival, putting aside differences with other tribes to unite and create a coalition. A female rancher is positively featured.


Hunters are shown carrying guns over their shoulders.


Two instances of strong language: "Asses" is heard in a rant, and "f--k you" can be seen written on a protest sign. 


Apple products are shown with labels visible. The film was made by the Patagonia brand, but their products aren't featured in any obvious way.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

People hold beers at a rally.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Public Trust is a Robert Redford-produced documentary that looks at why federally protected lands are meaningful to Americans and how they're now at risk. It lays out how much national parks, monuments, and wildlife sanctuaries are appreciated by the full spectrum of Americans, no matter their age, income, or political party. A hunter/gun-enthusiast-turned-journalist, a Minnesotan outdoorsman, a young female rancher, and several members of various Native American tribes are featured positively for their dedication to raising awareness about why the preserved spaces and waterways are important -- and what it will mean if they're privatized. Positive outcomes from mobilizing and demonstrating are shown, and the film is empathetic toward Indigenous populations whose way of life is impacted by the loss of their ancestral lands. While the material isn't written to appeal to kids, there's little iffy content ("asses" is heard on a recording, and "f--k you" is written on a protest sign), and animal lovers and those who enjoy outdoor recreation might find it compelling.

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What's the story?

More than 650 million acres of United States land are federally protected in a PUBLIC TRUST, allowing free, managed access for all to enjoy -- and for ecosystems to thrive. Despite wide support from voters of all political parties to continue conservation efforts, these lands are currently under threat from extractive industries. 

Is it any good?

This engaging, beautifully shot documentary isn't just good, it's enlightening -- and it should sound the alarms to American viewers, no matter their political party. Public Trust shines a light on the reasons why the United States has federally protected lands, why they're important, how almost all Americans enjoy them in some capacity, and why public discourse toward turning them over to gas, oil, and mining industries is gaining traction. Calm, rational, and geographically diverse voices share their plights and insights backed by a calming, poignant piano score. Together, they lay out a convincing presentation for why continuing to conserve the lands used for recreation, history, and sustenance is essential -- and the right of all American citizens. 

As you might guess, it's shadowy figures, greedy corporations, and disingenuous politicians who are accused of wanting to divest U.S. public lands for their own financial gain. The "follow the money" angle is eye-opening, especially for young people who may be less aware of how special interests work to get political favor. The film outlines which U.S. politicians have taken money from which corporations and then shows C-SPAN and news footage with these same politicians aggressively fighting for the wishes of these companies -- often against their constituents' best interests. Public Trust also explains how, in the 1980s, a grassroots movement to take more control of public lands known as the Sagebrush Rebellion became funded by corporations who saw opportunity -- and that, too, can be eye-opening (although a deeper exploration of the evidence would be helpful). The one thing the film lacks is a credible representative of the pro-extraction sentiment. It would be helpful to present a balance and let viewers make their own decision. Because this film isn't just educational regarding the federally protected lands issue: It's a tool to spark critical thinking.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how they use public lands and how, for Americans, that might change if U.S. public lands were privatized or if extraction industries were allowed to mine their resources. If you're an American, have you ever realized that you own these lands?

  • How are teamwork and perseverance shown to achieve a goal in Public Trust? How is communication essential to persuasion? Why are these important life skills?

  • Do you feel that Indigenous people should have more control over the management of their ancestral lands? 

  • How do the filmmakers activate viewers' empathy? Why should we care what happens to other people?

Movie details

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