'The Circle': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

A mainstream-friendly critique of social media.
4/28/2017

Emma Watson becomes the mascot for a new wave of privacy-eroding web services in James Ponsoldt's adaptation of Dave Eggers' 2013 novel, co-starring Tom Hanks.

James Ponsoldt's The Circle, a high-gloss imagining of how current trends might soon lead to the actual and total end of privacy, makes its Tribeca premiere on a day whose morning news reported that a man in Thailand had live-streamed himself killing his infant daughter. Recent weeks have seen border guards demanding total access to travelers' social media accounts; Congress just told internet service providers it isn't illegal to sell their customers' private data.

That is to say, we probably already live in a scarier world, filled with stranger horrors, than the one The Circle presents as a cautionary tale. Given the speed and unpredictability of change in this arena, it's reasonable to wonder if a big-budget feature film, much less one based on a four-year-old novel (by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote this adaptation's screenplay), can hope to speak to the needs of the moment. In its quicker-turnaround, nugget-sized parables, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series may be better equipped.

Yet it would be absurd if the movies didn't address the massive experiment humanity is undertaking, and this film — with its big stars and easily digested moral dilemmas — is the kind of "issue"-inflected entertainment that could stimulate some thought about the services we use and which use us online. In any event, the pic should mark a commercial step up for Ponsoldt, who has enjoyed critical support for indies like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now but will now have his first crack at Middle America.

Emma Watson plays Mae, a trusting soul just starting an entry-level job at Circle, a tech giant with similarities to many companies, primarily Facebook. Its innovation is TruYou — a single-identity, one-password solution for everything you do online, which eliminates anonymity along the way. "The chaos of the web made simple," as she puts it. Run by dual chiefs — stiff, biz-minded Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and folksy, Jobsian Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) — the company is held in awe by the public and revered by the Kool-Aid drinkers employed there.

Early scenes of Mae trying to adjust to Circle's corporate culture are none too subtle about the expectations that are thrust upon her with a smile. Any customer evaluation that isn't 100 percent favorable is cause for concern; all those evening and weekend parties are totally optional and "just for fun," but your absence will be noted. And what do you mean you spent the weekend kayaking? I didn't see any posts about that on your feed.

Mae gets the job just in time to see Eamon announce his latest gadget: a marble-sized camera with a wireless satellite connection, which can be planted secretly all over the world to record and upload high-def, 24/7 video. In the grandiose way of Silicon Valley visionaries, Bailey presents this as a tool that will put an end to human rights violations in repressive countries. "If it happens, we'll know," he says reassuringly. His employees cheer like victims of mass brainwashing.

An incident involving some of those cameras embarrasses Mae and easily could lead to her losing this job before she even settles in. Instead, it prompts her to prove herself a true believer. She volunteers for Full Transparency, wearing a body cam all day and letting anyone in the world watch her live her life. Of course, this means putting all one's loved ones on camera as well, and Mae's parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his last performances) fall victim to this in a fairly predictable way. One of the things The Circle gets right on multiple occasions is that, once one has bought into a technology like this, the problems it creates are invitations not to abandon it but to seek further technological solutions.

Mae is soon not just a believer but a trailblazer, proposing ways for The Circle to grow that even its executives haven't imagined. Her transformation disgusts childhood friend Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane) and inspires jealousy in buddy Annie (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who's Amy Pond), who got her the job. But it presumably is most troubling to John Boyega's Ty, the man who invented TruYou but never intended it to become the privacy-destroying beast it now is. Ty still works on the Circle campus, but is an outsider, lurking on the fringes of parties and staff meetings. He befriends Mae shortly after she's hired, and shows her glimpses of the company's Big Brotherish future. But he more or less disappears from the film, staying onscreen just enough to keep it from being weird when he's called upon for a little deus ex machina action at the end.

As Mae finds herself pulled along in the current of her bosses' world-domination strategy, certain plot points might seem far-fetched, but only until you think of similar things that have already happened, similar liberties that have been happily surrendered by users of popular networks. Still, the resolution of her growing moral qualms is problematic.

We already know that Mark Zuckerberg doesn't want us knowing as much about his personal life as he knows about ours, that Eric Schmidt would not willingly show you his Google search history. But Ponsoldt and Eggers treat the hypocrisy of Circle chiefs Bailey and Stenton like a secret to be unveiled triumphantly, then end the film with optimistic pronouncements that first sound like ironic threats, then seem to about-face and greet a surveillance state as if it's utopia. The film's final message isn't as difficult to grapple with as the world we're actually living in, but that doesn't make it easy.

Production companies: Playtone, Likely Story, 1978 Films
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Gary Goetzman, James Ponsoldt
Executive producers: Stefanie Azpiazu, Peter Cron, Evan Hayes, Russell Levine, Federica Sainte-Rose, Ron Schmidt, Steve Shareshian, Marc Shmuger, Sally Wilcox
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Emma Porter
Editors: Lisa Lassek, Franklin Peterson
Composer: Danny Elfman
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)

PG-13, 109 minutes

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