Tribeca Film Review: ‘The Circle’

The Circle
Courtesy of STX

A shrewdly ominous corporate thriller about the death of privacy in the digital age is, at last, a movie that fingers the proper culprits — namely, us.

The Circle” is a swankly sinister little mind teaser of a thriller. It’s a nightmare vision of what digital culture is turning all of us into, with all of our help. The movie, adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel and directed by James Ponsoldt (“The End of the Tour”), is about a corporation called The Circle that stores massive amounts of data — financial, medical, social, personal — about each of the account holders who belong to it. The company, based in the Bay Area, knows everything there is to know about you — but it’s all for your own convenience! You could call “The Circle” a dystopian thriller, yet it’s not the usual boilerplate sci-fi about grimly abstract oppressors lording it over everyone else. The movie is smarter and creepier than that; it’s a cautionary tale for the age of social-media witch hunts and compulsive oversharing. The fascist digital future the movie imagines is darkly intriguing to contemplate, because one’s main thought about it is how much of that future is already here.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is an eager, lively, somewhat unsure-of-herself office drone who is lucky enough, through her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), to snag an entry-level job as a “customer experience” manager on the campus of The Circle. It’s one of those super-energized youth-cult work environments — think Amazon meets Apple meets Facebook — where selling what the company stands for is built into every interaction. Early on, Mae attends her first Dream Friday, the weekly corporate pep rally in which Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the company’s co-founder and guru, gets up on stage to point out how everything that’s good for The Circle is good for the world. Hanks, warm and youthful in dark hair and a gray beard, plays Bailey with a disarmingly friendly, Steve Jobs–meets–Tony Robbins happy-talk authoritarian boosterism.

On Mae’s first Dream Friday, Bailey introduces a shiny round synthetic camera, scarcely bigger than a marble, that can be attached to any surface. A live feed of that environment will then come right onto your computer screen. It’s very NSA — which is to say, nothing we haven’t already contemplated in the age of high surveillance.

But then Mae, after several days on the job, gets visited at her desk by a couple of co-workers, and that’s when the real creepiness starts to play with her head. They tell her that she has already fallen behind on her social media, that she’s not sharing enough with the “community.” She is, they say, the most “mysterious” person at the company (because she’s failed to reveal every last thing about herself). They know that her father (played, in his final role, by the late Bill Paxton) has MS, but didn’t she know that the company offers a support group for children of MS sufferers? They also point out that Mae didn’t come into work over the weekend (but, they hasten to add, that’s okay, it’s not required, though it didn’t go unnoticed), and that she would do well to keep up on her unanswered community work messages, which now number 8,000. It’s all for her own good, of course. It’s so that she can connect.

In nearly every corporate thriller, the ominous bosses are the bad guys, and the workers, with one or two back-stabbing exceptions, are the victims of their malfeasance. “The Circle” presents an altogether different — and more insightful — anatomy of corporate power. Everything The Circle does fulfills a “progressive” agenda. And the bad guys are now us: the proletarian communicators.

At a work party, Mae learns that the company has devised a system to protect children from predators by implanting chips in their bones. When she laughs, in disbelief, that this could be happening, the coworker who tells her about it mentions that it’s “reducing kidnapping, rape, and murder by 99 percent.” (If you object to the idea of implanting chips in children, then it puts you on the side of defending those things.) A politician running for Congress gives a speech to the Circle members, pledging total transparency: She will make every last one of her phone calls and e-mails available. It’s the “liberal” vision of political honesty.

But, of course, what all this is doing is eliminating privacy — and, more than that, downgrading privacy to an archaic concept. “The Circle” is Dave Eggers’ variation on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in which Big Brother has become the compulsion of ordinary citizens to make public — and relinquish control over — their space, their lives, their selves. How far does the film go into the new consciousness? Far enough to make the principal culprit…the heroine.

Mae is recruited by Bailey and his partner (Patton Oswalt, as the compleat weasel) to become a company advocate, and before long she has embraced the cult of “transparency,” volunteering to wear a micro-camera 24/7 and turn her life into a YouTube-style reality series: “Big Brother” meets “The Truman Show.” (Ponsoldt and Eggers, who co-wrote the script, provide a witty jaded array of pop-up troll comments in on-line bubbles.) Emma Watson makes this convincing, because she gives Mae a desire to be liked that turns her cheerleading for the new technocratic agenda into something uniquely validating. She wins followers, the love of her coworkers, the approval of her bosses — and through it all she fills the hole in her soul with a new way of “connecting.” The company, in turn, gets a new way to control everyone under the sun.

“The Circle” has an elegant and original look, all sleek techno business clutter, and given its star wattage, it’s a good enough movie to find a niche in the marketplace. Watson, who’s at the center of nearly every scene, is a serious actress who proves that she can hold a film together with the force of her personality.

Yet a movie where the heroine, in her ambiguous innocence, goes over to the dark side of corporate power is not necessarily a movie you can warm up to. “The Circle” is a fascinating but chilly parable, a film for the head rather than the heart (or any place lower). It’s a bit of a thesis drama; its driving passion it to warn us about how a surveillance society will work. Mae gets up on stage to demonstrate that anyone on earth can be located in 20 minutes. She starts with a wanted killer (it’s queasy to see even that person readily apprehended), then moves on to her non-techie best friend (Ellar Coltrane, the star of “Boyhood”), whose pursuit by cell-phone camera and highway mini-drone plays like a scene out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “The Circle” is so clinical in its paranoia that it doesn’t hit many emotional buttons, but it’s the rare conversation-piece thriller that asks its audience: What sort of society do you really want? The movie shows us what it looks like when people have been convinced to share so much of themselves that they no longer have any selves left.

Tribeca Film Review: 'The Circle'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival, April 26, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

An STX Entertainment release of an Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Likely Story, Playtone, Route One Entertainment prod. 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 Willcox.

Crew

Director: James Ponsoldt. Screenplay: Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers. Camera (color, widescreen): Matthew Libatique. Editors: Lisa Lassek, Franklin Peterson.

With

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Karel Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton.

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  1. Nick Denton says:

    I have to admitt I didnt expect it to be that good. I was amazed. Such a great job. I spent a wonderful time watching it! Thumbs up!

  2. Jacob schmidt says:

    Poor Gleiberman. Is your tongue tied by Variety or by your unwillingness to tread on the feelings of Hollywood? Your ‘review’ is a glossy cover of the movie trailer. Is that what you get paid for? With the exception of praising the actors, you failed to actually review the movie. We already know what it is about. Did you like it? Will we like it? Is it worth the price of admission? Is it worthy of nominations? THIS should be your fields of expertise. Thus you fail us miserably. Get a backbone. Hurt feelings if you must but be truthful at least. THAT is what readers expect. Not pandering. Movie goers know that this movie stinks badly. Next time, try being more than the narrative to a trailer. Try being honest. Earn your pay and our respect or get a different job.

  3. Aurora says:

    I hope this movie will make a lot of people aware that you have to take measures to protect your privacy. First get a good VPN like NordVPN or Cryptostorm. Install a privacy friendly browser like Brave, that automatically blocks ads and trackers. And last, use a search engine that doesn’t track you, like Startpage.com or Ixquick. Please share this message with your friends!

  4. John Carstairs says:

    Despite having an intriguing setting, and a vulnerable and likeable heroine, this movie fizzles like a damp squib. The plot boxes itself in with nowhere to go. It leaves far too many unanswered questions. Is Hanks a villain? What motivates Watson to make Hanks “transparent”? Is it because she becomes a brainwashed supporter of the Circle’s goal of knowing everything about everyone; or is it because she finally sees Hanks as a malevolent manipulator who deserves to be exposed by his own technology. This movie is not worth the price of admission.

  5. Alan says:

    It is ironic that Tom Hanks has become such a Hollywood/Progressive spokesman but takes part in a movie that shows the dangers of both. Is this arrogance that he can show openly what he is championing or is Hanks just clueless about the connection between what he champions ?

  6. Thomas says:

    The movie wasn’t really supposed to be entertaining per se. It felt more like a public service announcement with a little glamour.

    I thank those involved for relating an issue many people have been concerned about in a format that might be more comprehensible to others.

    The implications that were demonstrated were very appropriate.

    Most of the reviews and articles like these seem to miss the point of the flick. I think it was flat on purpose.

    Life isn’t glamorous. People typically aren’t terribly heroic. She wanted to help her family. The company was a means to an end. It took a dramatic episode to wake her dumbass up. Solid movie. Glad to buy a ticket.

  7. John Nagle says:

    Has potential as a pilot episode for a series. The concept provides many plot opportunities. $18 million budget; not too expensive for series production.

  8. Ben says:

    Movies about technology or high tech companies are almost always a bore, and this sounds like no exception.

  9. Ralph says:

    Black Mirror did this already, and much, much better! This is just same old same old pedestrian approach, don’t waste your time. Funny how these Hollywood stinkers get such good reviews, wonder why….

    • Practical Voice in the Hollywood Wilderness says:

      But Black Mirror did it AFTER the book was released. I’m convinced that two its episodes — the Bryce Dallas Howard social media nightmare episode and the one where the criminals are tracked by a horde of people with cell phones — were directly inspired by Eggers’ book. They were both excellent episodes and both better than this crap adaptation, but no doubt cribbed from the far-superior-than-all book.

  10. LOL says:

    Emma Watson wants an Oscar nod. Even Keira Knightley’s managed that, and she can’t even act.

  11. If Gliberman likes a movie it’s a stinker. If he hates it, go see it! OG is a perfect reverse barometer for the public.

  12. Sally says:

    “Watson is a serious actress” hahaha really Variety? She is awful same eyebrow acting.

    • Joseph says:

      Variety is just kissing up to her (unsurprisingly). Every other review I’ve seen describes her as what she is: bland, not compelling, untalented.

  13. Rachel says:

    This review was great until Owen subjected Emma/Mae to this: “The Circle” is a fascinating but chilly parable, a film for the head rather than the heart (or any place lower). I didn’t realize a film about a young woman rising in a utopian Big Brother corporation was supposed to appeal to your crotch more than your head or heart….

  14. Michael says:

    I have always thought she was an extremely beautiful and talented actress

  15. Jane S says:

    Emma Watson can’t act

    • James says:

      She got a lucky break in a kid’s movie. Her casting in any adult role is a function of her bankability rather than acting ability, which she is painfully bereft of.

    • Michael says:

      She is a good actress. And to be honest you sound very arrogant

    • George says:

      She is a great actress. Grow some taste

    • Ruddy says:

      Oh yes she can, shes fucking great. Try watching her films, I hate to think what terrible sea of actresses you think can act.

      • Michael says:

        If you don’t like her you can start feeling bad about the immense success she is actually having as an actress instead of attacking those who really have good taste and like her ;)

      • Phoenix says:

        Haha, you must be brain dead if you think she’s a good actress.

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