Film Adaptation Of 'The Circle' Is Part Satire, Part Moralistic Melodrama

Apr 28, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 2:20 pm
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Circle," a satirical novel by Dave Eggers, is now a movie, which he co-wrote with director James Ponsoldt, best known for "The End Of The Tour" and "The Spectacular Now." "The Circle" stars Emma Watson as a customer service worker at a giant social media company. It's boss and chief visionary is played by Tom Hanks. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "The Circle" is named for a powerful tech company, Facebook with aspects of Apple and maybe Google. But think Facebook because its hook is community and its principal product, a social interface app called TruYou, T-R-U-Y-O-U. Emma Watson plays Mae, a young, ingenuous woman who lands a low-level but much-coveted job and gazes in wonder at the sunny, invasively social employees on its rolling grounds outside San Francisco.

Dave Eggers adapted his novel along with the director, James Ponsoldt. And they've concocted something that's part satire, part moralistic melodrama. Some of it is broadly acted; some of it's subtle. Much of it, ridiculously overheated. But it has great moments, most early on. It hits its peak with the first appearance of Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey, the Mark Zuckerberg-Steve Jobs-like guru who walks out on a nearly bare stage and puts on a show that Mae watches with shining eyes. The theme of "The Circle" is transparency versus privacy.

Onstage, Bailey explains that privacy is the enemy, that keeping tabs on everyone will mean dictators can't violate human rights and children will be protected from molesters. He considers keeping secrets a form of lying. He says, knowing is good, but knowing everything is better. His employees go wild, which raises at least two questions - the first, whether that's a tradeoff worth making. Most people would say no, even as they give more information in exchange for convenience. The second is whether Bailey is philosophically sincere or another power-mad monopolist in social reformer's clothing. The best thing about Hanks' performance is he plays the sincerity. And he's Tom Hanks. We want to trust him. If Bailey is acting, he's the best actor on earth. Of course, in the wings, he has a somewhat stereotypical publicity-oriented partner Tom Stenton, played by Patton Oswalt.

The company keeps tabs on everything Mae does - her comings, goings, hobbies, social rating by peers. But there's another watcher, John Boyega as the inventor of TruYou, who roams the buildings like the phantom of The Circle, dropping moral and ethical judgments. Poor Mae is swayed by him. So torn, she goes kayaking in the middle of the night and, in a poorly staged scene, nearly drowns. She's rescued, wouldn't you know, with the help of The Circle's new, omnipresent surveillance system, SeeChange - that's S-E-E. After the rescue footage goes viral, Mae sits with Bailey and Stenton. And the first thing that comes up is the time her friend snuck her into Bailey's office after dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CIRCLE")

TOM HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) Tom and I want to talk to you about an idea. But before we do, is there anything you want to tell us?

EMMA WATSON: (As Mae Holland) That I've been here before?

HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) It's only our lies that get us in trouble, the things we hide. Of course, I know you've been in here before.

(LAUGHTER)

HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) And now that I know your secret, do you feel better or worse?

WATSON: (As Mae Holland) Better. Relieved, actually.

HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) I am a believer in the perfectibility of human beings. When we are our best selves, the possibilities are endless. There isn't a problem that we cannot solve. We can cure any disease. And we can end hunger and - without secrets, without the hoarding of knowledge and information, we can finally realize our potential.

EDELSTEIN: Quickly, too quickly - scenes must have been cut - Mae becomes The Circle's most flamboyant proselytiser, pushing for less privacy, more surveillance. "The Circle" is a corruption story in which the question is, will she be uncorrupted? Eggers' book goes one way. The movie, the exact opposite, though the ending here is confusing and smacks of desperation. Emma Watson is likeable, but she gives her features quite the workout. She's acting hard. "The Circle" recalls the '50s morality film "A Face In The Crowd" and can also be compared unfavorably to the terrifically scary British TV series "Black Mirror," which finds more imaginative ways to portray our happy surrender to technology.

On a sad note, the late Bill Paxton plays Mae's father who has M.S., and it hurt to watch him. I was already reeling from another death this week, Jonathan Demme, one of our finest directors. He began his career as a publicist. And a key to his greatness was he never entirely relinquished that role. In films as various as "Melvin And Howard," "Stop Making Sense," "Something Wild," "The Silence Of The Lambs" and "Rachel Getting Married," he was the artist-as-promoter, an apostle. He saw his job as showing actors, musicians and political figures in their most brilliant light. He built families of artists and let them take center stage, his own art concealed. We will miss his insistent humanism more than I can say.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein writes for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.