Tuesday, May 9, 2017
KNOWING IS GOOD. KNOWING EVERYTHING IS BETTER: a review of "The Circle"
Based upon the novel by Dave Eggers
Screenplay Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers
Directed by James Ponsoldt
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13
With as much as I am fascinated by and attracted to all manner of technology,those nifty adult toys with the requisite bells and whistles that keep us all addicted to being tuned in, turned on and endlessly wired and connected, I also deeply value my time away from it. Nowadays, while ensconced in the aggressively hardwired 21st century, I probably value it even more than I ever thought that I would.
While I definitely see the advantages of a GPS system, I do not have one in my car. While I do see the advantages of owning a smartphone, I also do not own one and truth be told, it really took some arm twisting to convince me to purchase a cellphone in the first place many years ago as I was so resistant to it. I do not own a flat screen HD television. My social media excursions are limited to Facebook as I am not on Twitter, Snapchat or really much of anything else at all. I don't sleep with my cellphone near me and the laptop I own is usually sitting comfortably within its case in my living room as I primarily use the desktop, just as I am doing as I write to you now.
For me, I am old enough to vividly remember life and existence without any of these items and as I journey through my daily travels seeing individuals truly locked to their phones, people walking down the street almost hypnotically looking downwards into the palms of their hands rather than remotely upwards into life itself, I am reminded that I am not missing anything by not having so many of these gadgets and items that simultaneously connect and disconnect us from our own existence.
No, I am not trying to claim some sense of superiority as I have my own ways of disengaging, most notably through my own headphones and the music I blast into my ears as I walk around, and of course through Facebook and yes, these blogsites upon which I write. But, I do think there is something to be said when I walk into any of Madison's many coffeehouses and witness people staring into screens and not engaging themselves in the art of conversation with each other face to face. And I also cannot help but to wonder about the generations of people who have only known existence with being plugged in. To them, what does privacy, surveillance or even internal silence mean, if anything at all?
This specific quandary sits at the core of "The Circle," Director James Ponsoldt's adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel. While some may wish for more of a traditional corporate, technological thriller with easy to spot heroes and villains, I think what Ponsoldt has achieved is a film that is more meditative, cerebral as well as more than a little creepy regarding our relationship not only to technology but to our own sense of interpersonal detachment and increasingly Orwellian existence, which we all seem to be only too happy to subscribe to. It is this more thoughtful approach that ultimately made for a quietly disturbing film.
"The Circle" stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young college graduate stuck in a low paying dead end cubicle job, who worries over the status of her parents, including the debilitating health of her MS afflicted Dad Vinnie (well played by the late Bill Paxton) and still carries a tentative relationship with her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Eller Coltrane).
Via the influence of a college friend named Annie (Karen Gillan), Mae scores an interview, and ultimately a customer service position, at The Circle, a massive technological and internet/social media corporation, a campus that houses a compound and working population that would easily function as its own city (for those of you in Madison, think Epic Systems).
The Circle is owned and operated by the seemingly congenial Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), whose easy going, "aw shucks" charm combined with his technological visionary status has made him the greatest of rock stars to his staff, or perhaps, as Mae quickly questions, is he some sort of a neo-cult leader to his legion of disciples, as one of his personal mottoes happens to be, "Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better."
Soon, Mae captures the attention of Eamon and she begins to rapidly rise through the ranks of The Circle, eventually becoming the central figure in a revolutionary new technological advancement that fully blurs the ethical lines and boundaries between privacy and public knowledge which then further complicates concepts of personal freedom and virtual imprisonment. And in doing so, Mae's participation not only threatens her relationships with her family and friends, but the overall fabric of our sense of humanity.
On the surface, James Ponsoldt's "The Circle" may feel to be a bit of a hybrid between films like David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) and Sydney Pollack's "The Firm" (1993) or at least an experience that sits somewhere in the same virtual neighborhood as USA Network's "Mr. Robot." While Ponsoldt's film is not in quite the same league as those comparisons, it is indeed a smart, savvy and more than insidious little thriller that uncomfortably forces its audience to take a hard look into the mirror at our own societal complacency concerning our own increasing levels of oversharing, permissive lack of privacy combined with our collective insatiable need to have our individual voices heard regardless of either the real or virtual world.
As I continue to ruminate over the film, two sequences/sections of the film come to mind powerfully in regards to the character of Mae Holland and how she serves as a reflection of each and everyone of us in the audience. The first sequence arrives during a course in the film where Mae's skepticism and quiet challenges to the authoritarian system of The Circle come into question as she is essentially coerced by Eamon and his right hand man Tom Stenton (played by Patton Oswalt) to become the test case in a program involving complete transparency, as they reason that people would behave as their best selves if they were under constant surveillance, therefore leaving every piece of themselves open for public view and ultimate scrutiny. Seeing as she has now not only made a comfortable living with the organization and the fact that her parents, especially her Father's health care needs, are being more than cared for financially, Mae feels obligated to acquiesce.
What follows are sequences where we witness every moment of Mae's life, save for an allotted three minutes of private time for a bathroom break, being broadcast to the world--kind of like an updated version of what we saw in Peter Weir's "The Truman Show" (1998)--yet, what is different is how the public at large is able to comment upon her every movement, decision and seemingly, her every thought in real time. Ponsoldt visualizes this aspect of the film by loading the screen with the variety of social media commentaries delivered by Mae's viewers and the result is disturbingly overwhelming. What's more is how after a spell, I feel that we are being asked to question just how much Mae is actually enjoying the increased attention, therefore fueling her sense of self-importance, narcissism and perhaps to an extent, whatever sense of entitlement she may be harboring in the process, calling to further question if The Circle is using her or if she is using The Circle.
Another sequence features a boardroom section where Mae arrives at a new technological idea or advancement for The Circle that could align their social media services along with the United States government in a fashion where society itself would be beholden not to a nation of laws but to essentially an internet provider service. Without inadvertently delving into spoiler territory, in the film's final moments, where Mae's ultimate confrontation with Eamon comes to a head, I would not be surprised if some audience members exit the film confused or even disappointed as "The Circle" does not lead towards a comfortable, tidy conclusion. Quite the contrary, what we are left with is an ending that is philosophically and morally ambiguous yet completely fitting with the questions Ponsoldt is asking of us regarding our relationship with the technology that we are in no hurry to detach ourselves from.
To an even greater extent, I feel that James Ponsoldt's "The Circle" is even pondering just what does it take to achieve the so-called "American Dream" in the 21st century. How much of ourselves are we willing to compromise or even discard in order to attain a certain level of power and control. Yet, if we did relinquish the best of ourselves in the process, are we truly in control of ourselves or have we simply given ourselves over to whatever larger forces to which we are attracted?
These very questions make the character of Mae Holland and the film overall extend itself from existing as a simple computer thriller and more as a mediation about the paradoxes of our society. Is there freedom and liberation in constant surveillance? Can alienation be subverted by detaching ourselves from having any private moments? Are our thoughts still interior if we share all of them on a public forum? If our lives are lived on-line, then are we living at all? James Ponsoldt's "The Circle" is not a film for which we can have those questions answered, and frankly, how could it? But, it was in the asking, the provocation of the questioning that ensured this film would be a notable document of how life is being lived in 2017.