The Circle review

“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” So goes the mantra of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one of the men in charge of technology giant The Circle. James Ponsoldt’s film, names after the company, imagines an organization not too far from reality, a powerful but potentially unholy blend of Google and Facebook, with maybe a bit of Disney thrown in.

Based upon Dave Egger’s prescient novel, the film, which Eggers helped adapt to screen, is a sometimes insightful but ultimately fairly mundane examination of the question, what would the world look like if we valued knowledge and access to information as a right above privacy?

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a talented young woman wasting her youth (and her art history degree) working for the local utility company and living with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles). But Mae’s life changes when her long-term friend Annie (Karen Gillan) snags her an interview with the most powerful and trendy tech company on the planet. It’s the kind of place that features weekly Ted-esque innovation talks, Friday night concerts from Beck and more clubs and activities than one could possibly do in a lifetime.

Mae succeeds in getting a job in Customer Experience, where many budding circlers start their meteoric careers. She is, at first, predictably overwhelmed. There’s her customer satisfaction score (1-100), as well as her social circle account (like Facebook, but with a specific popularity rank number tied to it). Then, there’s her weekend trips to her parent’s to help take care of her ailing MS-diagnosed father. Between all this, the poor girl barely has time to indulge in her favorite activity: kayaking.

But none of this is enough to stop Mae’s determination. Her work ethic soon gets the attention of Bailey and fellow company leader Tom (Patton Oswalt), along with the mysterious Ty (John Boyega), who warns her that abandoning privacy completely and “completing the circle” will have an irreversible cost.

Mae is skeptical. Look at what good The Circle is doing for humanity. We’re on our way to complete transparency, where tiny marble-sized cameras can be placed anywhere and camouflaged, unseen to the naked eye. With everyone afraid of getting caught, crime could be almost eliminated overnight. No more theft, no more shootings, no more dictators committing massive human rights violations. The Circle envisions a perfect utopia of accountability, where people behave within the confines of law and decency, because the only other choice is to be seen and known. There will be no shadows to hide in, and that is something Mae wants desperately to be a part of, no matter the cost. As Mae rises through the ranks of The Circle, she is forced to consider the moral imperative of the company’s efforts, along with its potential pitfalls.

Eggers’ and Ponsoldt’s script follows all of the main beats from the novel, and in a few cases adds some interesting twists to the equation. But the story still feels rushed; even with the elimination of some extraneous plot threads, there are so many interesting characters that don’t feel like full flesh-and-blood people. This somewhat deadens the emotional impact of some of the film’s more dramatic scenes.

The Circle raises some provocative questions in the information age, but doesn’t have enough gripping character moments to sustain interest.

This missed opportunity extends to the acting (and I’m not just talking about Watson’s dubious American accent). There is a very talented cast here, but many of the major players feel underutilized. Oswalt, Boyega and Hanks don’t get as much screen time as they deserve, and, when the film’s revelations are brought to light, we still don’t know much about their backgrounds or how they play into the proceedings.

The visuals are the film’s most interesting bullet point. The screen is often filled with pop up messages commenting on events in a variety of languages. This commentary is sometimes relevant but often delightfully random, and it contributes to the film’s growing sense of unease and dread over just how invasive technology can be. Without giving much away, this visual element is directly tied to a major story point, so it feels natural but never excessive or distracting.

One of the film’s major faults may lie with its marketing. The previews sold The Circle as a techno-thriller, with Mae discovering shady dealings inside the company and speaking out about them. That’s not what happens in the book, and I’m thankful that the film sticks closer to Mae’s inner moral conundrum regarding the necessary limitations of technology. But, this type of story is decidedly smaller and less high-stakes, and those looking for a grand conspiracy at the center of the story should check their expectations.

Egger’s script is also a bit softer and less acerbic than his novel, and that is most prevalent in the character of Mae. In the book, she turns from an idealistic young go-getter into a complete monster, alienating her family and friends for the “greater good” of the company, but the film makes her decidedly more sympathetic. I recall a great sense of tragedy reading about this slow moral degradation, but the film misses out on that character arc. Making Mae into a slightly more heroic figure probably makes the film more commercially palatable, but it also makes it less interesting. Her mixed motivations muddy the message a bit, particularly in the ending, which is still kind of cool but takes her ultimate decision in a different direction.

The Circle asks some extremely important questions, ones well worth mulling on. Are there some things we are not meant to know? What are the limits of science and technology in a connected world, if there are any? Is knowledge more important than privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? The film does an admirable job tackling these big questions, but it does so at the expense of truly interesting and memorable characters. It’s a fine film, but the center of this circle feels a bit hollow.

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: 12 Angry Men and the true nature of justice

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men shows us the towering pillars of an unnamed court building. At the top of this building, we see a quote from George Washington: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

When Sydney Lumet’s debut feature was released 60 years ago in 1957, it’s safe to say he and many Americans may have felt those words to be hollow. What was justice to the hundreds of black men being lynched across the nation? Although “separate but equal” facilities had been outlawed three years earlier, the justice system surely didn’t feel like a safe, reliable institution to many African-Americans and other minorities whose wounds were as fresh as their memories.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We were promised technology would erase these divisions, these wounds. That scientific progress would necessitate a moral shift. Anyone who spends time on the internet would quickly find such a promise to be unfulfilled.

What’s so astonishing about this classic courtroom drama is that it speaks so clearly to the current state of public discourse and justice in the United States, just as it did 60 years ago.

The film’s set up is simple: a jury of 12 men is tasked with deciding whether to send a Puerto Rican teenager to the electric chair for murdering his father, or declare him not guilty of the crime. Eleven of the men are immediately prepared to declare him guilty, but one abstains. Juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda, offers up a simple request: “I just want to talk.” Number 8 reminds the other jurors that the point of justice is to prove culpability beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have no doubts, the other men say. And yet, over the next few hours, he slowly and methodically convinces every single one of them to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and in fact are relying more on their own prejudices and preconceptions than any objective view of the facts.

Of course, none of the other men are aware of this. In their mind, the evidence is clear. But the jury deliberation room is sweltering, and they all have lives to get back to, after all.

This past election cycle, I was reminded of how entrenched most Americans are. We have our own news channels, our own friend group and our own community gatherings. We have a hard time putting ourselves in others’ shoes because we don’t know what an “other” looks like, what he thinks and feels and believes. Our opinions validate us, and so we fear changing them, even when the facts would otherwise compel us to consider a different perspective.

According to the film, that’s a damn shame. Many of the other jurors are, perhaps understandably, upset at #8’s insistence on having a discussion. Doesn’t he see what’s staring him right in the face? His main opposition is juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), an emotional man who nonetheless proclaims a firm commitment to the facts. What about the multiple eyewitnesses? The boy’s flimsy alibi? The physical evidence, such as the unique knife found at the scene? How can you go against such overwhelming evidence?

The answer, according to juror 8, is simply to ask questions. “We’re talking about someone’s life here,” he says. “We can’t just decide it in 5 minutes. Supposing we’re wrong.”

12 Angry Men reminds us that true justice is impeded as long as we refuse to question our assumptions or admit that we might be wrong.

In post-truth America, “wrong” might as well be a swear word. We’re taught that if we feel a certain way about something, than it must be true. But…what if.

“I don’t have personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about the facts,” juror 3 says, as if doing so were even possible. Our emotions often make true impartiality impossible.

One of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so memorable is the fact that there are no villains. The men who most vehemently oppose juror 8 aren’t monsters, they’re simply doing what they feel is right. But right and wrong should never be determined by how we feel about something.

This is driven home in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, when juror 10 (Ed Begley) loses himself in a racist rant about “those people” who live in the slums.

“Violence—that’s their nature,” he says. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, each man stands up and turns his back to juror 10, as he continues to fumble for words. Even in an environment where everyone has a voice, not all viewpoints deserve equal treatment. The look on juror 10’s face as he realizes how deeply entrenched his prejudice has become and how blind it has made him is a true acting feat, and it’s the moment that sways the stubborn man’s verdict. He knows now that the things he believes in the shadows, spoken out, are heinous and underserving of acknowledgement.

How do we treat the racists we encounter, the people who refer to African-Americans as “thugs” or even make causal jokes about Asian drivers? Thanks to the internet, the Alex Joneses and David Dukes of the world have a platform to speak their controversial opinions. But we often acknowledge these thoughts by trolling them on Twitter, by reacting against them in force. Like the jurors in the film, I wonder if protesting such hate speech would be more effective if we simply stayed silent, a universal sign that some opinions are not valid and will not be acknowledged as such.

“Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth,” Juror 8 says towards the end of the film. And, in this room full of average, relatable, well-meaning men, we certainly see plenty of that adage in action. My initial reaction to that quote is to remind the juror that prejudice is everywhere, and that’s why the “true administration of justice” is so hard. We are not, by nature, factually driven, rational animals. We are not Spock.

But, I can hear the juror responding, we don’t have to be. True justice begins to peek between the curtains of blind hatred and prejudice when we take the simple step of acknowledging that we might be wrong. This isn’t a decision someone else can make for us. And, in an age of Twitter flame wars and internet trolls, it’s not an easy one to stand by. But to do otherwise is to risk our own humanity.

Sixty years later, I pray there is still time to take the lessons these 12 Angry Men have learned to heart.