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The Circle – Review


Release Date: 28 April 2017 [USA]
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writer: James Ponsoldt - Dave Eggers [Screenplay] - Dave Eggers [Novel]
Cast: Emma Watson - Tom Hanks - John Bodega - Bill Paxton



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Posted May 15, 2017 by

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The Circle Review:

The Circle has the most insultingly contrived screenplay about a complex, serious topic that I have ever seen. The script was co-written by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, on whose novel the movie is based. Though I was not a huge fan of Ponsoldt’s breakout The Spectacular Now in 2013, I loved what he did with the difficult subject matter in last year’s The End of the Tour. But he did not script either of those movies. As for Eggers, I have not read his novels. His screenplays, including the tepid Hologram for the King, have not been impressive.

But I was never angry while watching any of their previous work in the way I was while watching The Circle.

Consider the following:

Two tech geniuses, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, have built an empire based on the accumulation and analysis of data. Facebook turned up to eleven. Yet they wager their future on a new employee – a “guppie” – who as far as we know, is likely to be wholly unpredictable. (Spoiler – she is.)

That employee, Mae Holland, goes from being a rather smart, introverted nobody, to a Kardashian-like live presence on the net, who has her entire life chronicled to tens of millions of viewers. Her transformation occurs due to an unfortunate kayaking incident. I once fell out of a kayak and it didn’t really alter my personality that much.

The company, which wants to worm its way into the lives and brains of every single inhabitant of the earth, has a good sales pitch, showing how their ubiquitous cameras and army of cell phone-wielding conscripts can track down a child-murdering outlaw in just ten minutes. That actually makes sense. That is how you sell a revolutionary idea to a skeptical public. Then, these same geniuses, decide to track down a regular guy – someone we know to be shy and intentionally protecting his privacy – someone who has done nothing wrong. They do this on the spur-of-the-moment, on a whim, with no advance vetting or even much forethought. To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t the way most major corporate decisions are made. Needless to say, tragedy ensues.

And then, praise be to Jesus and Allah, the true genius who invented this intrusive software, just happens to be hanging around for no apparent reason other than to slip a few facts to Mae, and then in the blink of an eye, reveal all the nefarious plans of Messrs Bailey and Stenton just in time to save the world. Apparently, despite his huge concern about what was being done with his prized software, he never thought to actually look behind the curtain until young Ms. Holland suggested it.

This is nonsensical contrivance. And wait. There’s more.

Mae’s best friend, Annie, is one of the “gang of 40” at the company (which you probably guessed by now, is called “The Circle.”) Annie gets Mae her job and is a huge Circle cheerleader until she suddenly isn’t anymore. We never know, because the screenplay is so muddled, whether Annie’s about face is the result of jealousy over Mae’ advancement, a bout of bad health related to overwork, or genuine concern about the direction in which the company is moving. All are suggested. None are given any actual weight.

But none of that constitutes the most egregious aspect of The Circle. What is so maddening is that data mining and the willingness to trade in privacy for convenience is a major problem in the 21st century. And by dumbing it down so much, Ponsoldt and Eggers make it appear to be something that will be easy to spot. They stack the deck to an absurd degree. Even the most tech-loving millennials I know would balk at the total lack of privacy promoted by the company in the The Circle. And yet, with the exception of one or two naysayers, no one ever raises a hand and says “wait, let’s consider this.” That would not happen. Even though I agree with the lockstep enthusiasm that can grow up in new and innovative companies – something which is rather well-captured early on in the movie – there are always people who raise questions. And when the issue becomes a one hundred per cent lack of privacy, there will be many people raising red flags.

But not in The Circle.

After a modestly smart exposition, there is a scene in which new employee Mae is confronted by what appears to be the “Happy Police” at the Circle. This scene, and these characters, are so over-the-top – demanding (though not requiring) that Mae come to company events on the weekend, share intimate details of her private life with total strangers, and generally makes loads and loads of new friends – as to be laughable. Yet they are taken seriously in the context of this movie. From this scene on, the movie is patently false.

This is not merely bad filmmaking. It is dangerously bad filmmaking. We will give up our privacy in increments. We will give it up without even realizing it. We will give it up one 10,000 word user agreement at a time. It’s like the frog in the pot of hot water. We may one day slip into it. But if someone came to you today and said “sign up for this and we will know all of your secrets,” how many of you would rush to join up? By making the bad guys so over-the-top wrong, The Circle hides the more realistic and insidious manner in which we are most likely to succumb. And that might make us let our guard down. Fortunately, The Circle is not a good enough movie to get away with it.

As for the other elements of the movie, Ponsoldt the director does some creative things with his visuals, though none of it is ground-breaking. The acting presents a wide range. Emma Watson is ok in the impossibly-inconsistent role of Mae. Tom Hanks is pretty good as the glib Bailey. Patton Oswalt is all sneers as the slimy Stenton. He has never been worse in a movie. Ellar Coltrane is not a professional actor and should not be cast in movies like this. John Boyega has absolutely nothing to do. As Annie, Karen Gillan often has to speak very quickly in crowded areas, and I have to admit, I had trouble understanding her heavy Scottish accent. Maybe that one’s on me. But overall, a very mixed bag.

Last year, a mediocre tech-themed thriller called Nerve was criticized for its outlandishness and mean-spiritedness. I won’t go to great lengths to defend Nerve. But I will say this. At least Nerve recognized that most of us do not in fact want to be the Kardashians. We just want to watch them. In fact, Nerve is predicated on the desire for anonymity that The Circle seems to totally ignore. And that is one of the things that makes the big budget Circle inferior, maddening, and even dangerous.


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Jonathan Eig
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One Comment


    If I tell you it’s the first time I’ve ever been disappointed in Tom Hanks.
    That’s all you need to know.

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