‘The Circle’ Is Far Better Than Nearly Everyone Would Have You Believe

An argument for James Ponsoldt’s misunderstood masterpiece.
By  · Published on May 10th, 2017

An argument for James Ponsoldt’s misunderstood masterpiece.

In the dank underground chambers of James Ponsoldt’s The Circle, inside the literal bunkers of a tech conglomerate called The Circle, a fellow named Kalden (John Boyega) pulls Mae Holland (Emma Watson) aside and proclaims, a real act of love in James Ponsoldt’s world, that “you don’t have a cynical bone in your body.” The moment is neither cute nor sweet but just sort of sits in front of us. Watson’s Mae smiles and gives us Hermione’s please-the-professor grin. Is it real? Was it ever? “One of the many problems with The Circle is that it never gets much of a handle on Mae,” wrote Will Leitch in The New Republic. Angie Han, over at Mashable, calls the characters, Mae included, “empty vessels made to parrot diatribes.” This is jarring, as Ponsoldt’s last two movies were able to find rich and believable human expression in deadbeat dads and deadbeat novelists alike.

Where many have seen this as the movie’s crushing failure (as testified by its 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), I see it as evidence of Ponsoldt’s stunning accomplishment as a narrative filmmaker. Have any of you actually been inside an Apple Store? Like the proverbial gingers, these people have no souls.

[divider]Great Movie or Greatest Movie?[/divider]

People who like to talk about directors like to talk about careers. The move from low-budget to big, the space in between Whiplash and La La Land. Ponsoldt has been somewhat hard to exactly pin down, following his official ‘breakout’ hit (The Spectacular Now) with a deep nosedive into the preoccupations of the literary and David Foster Wallace-worshipping class (End of the Tour). His decision to take on Dave Eggers’ The Circle was both odd, because the man is box-office poison, and sort of reassuring: Eggers may be a poor man’s Foster Wallace but the contents could be sold as the big league Black Mirror the market is clamoring for. To note, it starred a baker’s dozen of bankable talent; in addition to billion-dollar franchise movie stars Watson and Boyega there was one indie breakout (Ellar Coltrane, of Boyhood fame) and one big wheel to draw in the publicity (Tom Hanks). There was even one dude who Twitter really likes (Patton Oswalt). It was all very much and most critics came in expecting something huge, the kind of middle-range hit the people like to say doesn’t exist anymore. By this note, people will say The Circle has failed, under-performing nearly everything at the box office and surely proving why small movies made in New York by contemplative men and large franchises made in LA by men with smart haircuts are what the world really needs. Get Out. Logan. Whatever.

But The Circle also fucking rules.

In Ponsoldt’s hands, the mildly large budget Hollywood production (made for $18 mil, which is more than La La Land but less than, you know, Moonlight) relaxes into a visual cornucopia of expensive-looking 21st century imagery, that many reviewers have spent time quibbling about whether it looks more like  Google or Apple. Whatever. The Circle mercifully returns us to the old science-fiction, manufactured not out of cleverness and knowing winks about things that can’t be paid for but one built out of the old brick and mortar that made us the worlds of Blade Runner and Total Recall, thick temples that we yearn to enter. For this reason, Ponsoldt whisks us inside the machinery without wasting too much of our time, on the whole, getting us there. Her family is great (played by Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton, in a small role that Ponsoldt makes heartbreakingly moving) but there is no reason to waste the kind of time with them that the writers over at, say, Doctor Who like to do.

There’s also a lot of cool stuff inside this here Circle and Ponsoldt’s choices glimmer: unlike most tech satires, these are jabs aimed at tech consumers (most of us) instead of at the more successful tech overlords (almost none of us). We spot the Dalai Lama on the grounds and indie festival-headliner Beck is summoned to celebrate the latest project of Eamon Bailey, the folksy boss man that Hanks plays: SeeChange. (Here is where the only meaningful criticism of The Circle lies: to celebrate SeeChange Beck plays “Dreams,” one of his more mediocre late-career singles. Winkingly disappointing, like most new technology.) An oozing techno score from Danny Elfman (of “The Simpsons Theme”-fame) keeps things shiny and bouncing, like what a leprechaun DJ would spin between acts at Coachella. I’d work here even if Soylent Green were secretly being manufactured down in the pits.

But that’s part of the genius of the set-up: there is no secret. Smashing together all the boring nuance of everyone’s little pet startup-turned-conglomerate into one big mega fortress of tech, the world of The Circle works because it evokes a world that may not be real to anyone who has had a drink with someone who likes to talk about their super-niche start up but is real enough to anyone who’s ever bought an iPhone. All Kalden, a sorta-defecting former co-founder of The Circle, shows Mae deep in the caverns is that The Circle happens to be storing all that info it processes. Big whoop and Ponsoldt doesn’t waste too much time here or with Kalden (pity for Boyega, who has really perfected the art of betraying evil empires, but good for the movie; in Eggers’ novel, Mae and Kalden have lots of horribly-written sex). His interests are, instead, with the ordinary people and their relationship with their ordinary jobs inside a tech conglomerate. How does it make them feel and so forth?

The argument has also been made, say, by Christina Warren at Gizmodo, that Ponsoldt’s world is too familiar and, thusly, doesn’t go far enough. “The Circle’s supposed dystopian universe doesn’t feel far off enough to be effective,” she wrote, making the comparisons to products like GoPro and whatever talking camera Amazon is currently cooking up. Aside from holographic screens, there isn’t very much in The Circle that most rich people don’t already use regularly. But most tech dramas, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is referenced religiously as is some ’90s tech thriller starring Sandra Bullock, don’t have very much interesting to say about technology. That rating interactions via social media would be awkward? That trolls persecuting perverts is a moral conundrum? Who cares? These are all great dramas that keep people on the edge of their seats, but have nothing to say about the people inside of them besides some tidy Orwell-esque cynicism about human behavior? Ponsoldt, however, uses the pace and hum of the thriller to do what old school thrillers do: rapidly create a visually complex world and, then, immediately reducing it to the elements that he is interested in. Some kind of spy mission, normally.

Many have claimed that Ponsoldt’s interests in The Circle can be boiled down to privacy. David Edelstein, writing for Vulture, elucidates it thusly: “The theme of The Circle is transparency versus privacy.” While this might be said of Eggers’ paranoid novel, I don’t buy that Ponsoldt’s interest in the slow erosion of privacy is anything more than superficial. Privacy is long gone and Ponsoldt knows that. What interests him, instead, is how people relate to each other in a perpetually public sphere, i.e. a sphere that is constantly being capitalized. The movie’s aesthetic language speaks to this: by concentrating on the world of one brand, Ponsoldt is able to emphasize its presence everywhere. The little ‘C’ of the movie posters pops up everywhere, from the back of computers and phones à la Apple products to Dad’s t-shirt after Mae signs him up for the company health plan because he’s dying (surveillance state or nah, America hasn’t changed that much). The bright red color scheme, meant to evoke Apple’s love of translucent grey-white or Facebook’s many shades of blue, gives contemporary American technological iconography the feel of Soviet-era Moscow.

And SeeChange, the system of cameras spread throughout the world in the style of Google Earth that Bailey introduces, is not some cheesy harbinger of surveillance state doom fresh out of 1984, as many have read it. It’s a harbinger of the commodification of everyday life, all those sponsored Instagram posts brought to three-dimensional life. When Mae is made the star of a live-streamed feed that follows her every move, it’s not because of anyone in The Circle, least of all Bailey, actually cares about what she is doing. Many have compared this plot point, this reality-TV of the every day, to the conceit of Peter Weir’s one-note The Truman Show but it’s a comparison that falls flat. Weir’s interests were in mocking everyday post-suburban ordinariness, jumping onto a crowded bandwagon that included everything from to Magnolia to American Beauty. We are given love interests and we are diligently ensured that Jim Carrey’s Truman is a real dude who just wants a real life. The cold apathetic remove of The Circle, however, prevents us from making these same asinine conclusions.

The Circle’s interest in Mae is far more compelling: they want to use her to chance a brand to millions of people around the world, to put an Emma Watson-face on a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that’s under investigation by the Feds. And, in order to sell the product, as many social media managers know, Mae has to be on! She has to be on when she is invited to sit in on a big meeting, which thrills her millions of followers but doesn’t get her out of her entry-level position. She has to be on when she accidentally walks in, digitally, on her parents having sex. When the best friend character, Annie (Karen Gillan), wants to talk about her real feelings or whatnot, those real painful things which we often tune into the interweb precisely to hear from others, she begs Mae to not record her, to not force her to package those feelings into something that’s similarly and performatively on. It’s this self-conscious alienation, between our actual real lives and the version that everyone in media is compelled to be selling, that Ponsoldt masterfully captures.

It’s also a space, in both Ponsoldt’s movie and our own, that is, often carefully gendered. The Instagram star, taking photos of their ordinary life, is, most popularly, a woman. The world of tech executives, who make most of the actual money off of this, remains, more often than not, male-dominated. The Circle reproduces this dichotomy perfectly. Mae, after all, becomes a viral sensation not because of any slavish and Silicon Valley celebrated genius-like attribute — Watson plays it perfectly with an ear for all the notes of false-modesty befitting today’s Jennifer Lawrence-era celebrity — but because she is an object of a vaguely-defined lifestyle lust. Ponsoldt depicts the moans of her followers with little tweets (called zings) that surround Watson whenever she’s online. The zings yearn. The zings are a pleading voice that wants to inhabit her life and she, in order to keep her job, must let them and must look like she loves it. Does she secretly hate it, does she yearn for anything else herself? We don’t know because we are, as viewers, just another follower. We realize, as anyone that follows a single blog must, that it is only participating in this walking advertisement that allows her to rise in a male-dominated tech company, where a chummy Oswalt joins the rebellious Boyega and the bearded Hanks as the company’s dick trifecta. Annie, while an executive, is slowly driven crazy in her attempt to compete with her male peers in the boardroom of the company they founded. All Mae has to do is give them, The Circle, her body.

Ponsoldt’s twist, which differs significantly from the ending of Eggers’ novel, is that Mae uses that power to turn that objectifying, commoditizing gaze back onto its creators. Earlier in the movie, The Circle leaks the private email correspondence of a senator, coincidentally also a woman, who is forced to resign in controversy — evoking a neat real-world parallel to our own almost-first female president. Mae, exploiting her relationship with Kalden and her newfound audience of millions, trains that arrow on Bailey and his masculine ilk. Their private lives, their private and super-private email correspondences (Watson reading out all this is joyful) are released like doves in the wind. Ponsoldt plays all this like the explosions and blast of the Pixies that greets us at the end of Fight Club, a delightfully absurd euphoria enjoyed by the powerless.

Watson’s performance as Mae is nothing short of a work of genius: always buzzy, always excited, always ambitious, she feels like a DJ Khaled of the tech world, both juicily inscrutable because the language they speak is purposeful without meaning. When she comes to the conclusion that the ideology of The Circle must, self-destructively, be turned inward, it is because it is not unlike the patriarchy of Silicon Valley, a holdover of an old social order. Ponsoldt deliberately, as he did in End of the Tour, does not mitigate this performance with useless and tedious characterization. Unlike, say, Spike Jonze’s Her — a movie that also looked at the effects new technology might have on an amiable protagonist played by one of Hollywood’s coolest talents — there is no meaningless love story, there is no personal arc for us to watch characters climb like children at a climbing wall. Where Her reduced the conceit of AI to Scarlett Johansson’s voice in order to show how it related to a writer getting laid, The Circle uses a contemporary surveillance scheme to show how it alters the way people interact with their own lives and each other, evoking an incapacity to create sincere engagement when all engagement is branded. The risk that Ponsoldt takes — unlike even Eggers, who provides a more definitive answer in his ending — is that he does not let us on: the movie’s token anti-technology character, the staple holding together every episode of Black Mirror, is Coltrane’s horrendously boring folk artist who self-consciously martyrs himself, signifying nothing. The deliberate limpness of his performance is yet another genius stroke; a smart parody of off-the-grid subculture, Ponsoldt’s uses him to point to its impotence.

Yet, for a movie that spends a considerable amount of its time streaming the personal details of its protagonist’s life to an audience of millions, many have complained that The Circle feels thin. But this merely restates the movie’s ultimate point: as content consumers, we are perpetually alienated from getting ‘a handle’ on anyone. Does Kylie Jenner genuinely enjoy Pepsi? What about the clothes she wears? What about absolutely anything about her as a person? In a world where technology has, as they say, taken over everything, the space for sincere bones, hidden and shown in private light is nonexistent. It’s all gloss and it’s all great. Much like The Circle. The Circle is great.

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