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View from Washington: The Circle goes nowhere

The Circle, Hollywood's A-list-packed satire on digital privacy, is a staggering misfire.

I saw The Circle, Hollywood’s latest paranoid cyber thriller, as a rainy-afternoon escape into a cinema. You have it easier. In the UK, the film has gone straight to Netflix after an unsuccessful US theatrical run and damning reviews.

You may be expecting me to now offer a more positive reappraisal. But no, this is a bad movie. Its usefulness is rather as a cautionary tale showing why (with rare exceptions like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror) fiction struggles with technological satire.

You can see how the project attracted serious talent. The cast includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega, Karen Gillan and the late Bill Paxton. Director James Ponsoldt was hot off an excellent biopic about novelist David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour. The source was a novel by the usually reliable Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) who also co-wrote the screenplay.

All no doubt saw The Circle as a chance to address A REALLY BIG ISSUE [sic]. Yes, the Internet does seem to be threatening our privacy and our freedoms.

The film locates its tale well. The Circle is a blend of Facebook, Google and Apple. It is a social media corporation that stretches far into its users’ lives, which also fosters a dangerously inward-looking cult of belonging in the employees. The creepy exclusivity of today’s tech giants is causing serious tensions in Silicon Valley.

The first problem, though, is that the film makes characters behave in unbelievably silly ways. For example, it depicts a corporate culture where employees are expected to be at least graduates, even to work the phones in customer support. They are also shown to undergo psychological profiling before being hired. So, when one reacts to stress by stealing a kayak for an ill-fated midnight joypaddle, the result is – erm – promotion.

Then there are the bad guys: Hanks as The Circle’s charismatic TED talk-giving leader and Oswalt as his corporate enforcer. Casting two of cinema’s most likeable actors so hard against type was full of interesting possibilities, but they are never properly explored.

The two are instead branded with their own type of stoopid. We learn that they have given The Circle’s disenchanted third founder and main code-slinger (Boyega) retirement in the form of access to the company’s entire campus, including its most secure servers. You know, the ones that can give access to all their truly dodgy secrets.

A good friend of mine who works as a Valley venture capitalist asserts that the success of any technology company comes down to “at least 50 per cent SDL”, with management, engineering, marketing and everything else squabbling over the remainder. When asked what “SDL” is, he’s only too happy to explain: “sheer dumb luck”.

Precious few Valley titans are as smart as they think they are, yet The Circle piles up incongruities faster than Amazon stocks its warehouse shelves. Barely five minutes go by without a character sparking another, “Sorry, you what?” moment.

I haven’t even got in to the script’s attempts to mint its own ‘newspeak’, such as “Secrets are lies”, “Sharing is caring”, and “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.” If you’re going to invoke Orwell so blatantly, you had better be absolutely on your game.

Strangely though, the film could have got away with much of that, if it had some teeth or some wit. Satire based on smart people doing daft stuff can work if events are felt to be building up a crescendo of catastrophe.

Only one moment in The Circle hints at such appropriately grotesque possibilities. Two co-workers offer Watson’s newbie a Stepfordian description of the ‘voluntary’ in-house social and office-hours policy. As things progress, the worst consequence of that turns out to be - I kid you not - a bad case of red-eye that sparks a boardroom hissy fit.

This brings us to The Circle’s second major failing. It refuses to deploy the greatest weapon in the satirist’s arsenal, the reductio ad absurdum. It is absurd alright, but it refuses to expose the absurdities and dangers of digital intrusion. Rather, it seems entranced by the world it would satirise.

Hanks’ TED-like pontifications to his workforce are so lovingly filmed, they should get Ponsoldt a gig directing the stream of Apple’s next product launch. Meanwhile, Boyega’s ‘honest’ founder is left skulking in the background, given voice only for the sake of plot exposition rather than the articulation of a theme. Then again, he fares better than the film’s other voice of conscience, Watson’s former boyfriend. He is given the off-grid job of fashioning chandeliers from deer antlers. Like I said, “Sorry, you what?”

It is in this last regard that The Circle is a cautionary tale, mainly for those who would dramatically explore the potential impact of the digital world. Film and TV are themselves now highly digitised processes. Directors and writers too often fall in love with sleek machines, cool graphics and the blandishments of technological determinism. The best, like Brooker, look beyond those and nurture some bile for their observations.

That The Circle gets a kicking for failing to vent anything of note is largely down to its pedigree. More mediocre equivalents have slumped in the same way, but the talents involved did not have as far to fall.

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