‘The Circle’ is a Master Class in How to NOT Make a Genre Film

by Gerry Conway

Some movies are a master class in how to make a good movie. Some are a master class in cinematography, or the use of soundtrack and score. Some are a master class in shot construction and editing. Some are a master class in screenwriting structure.

“The Circle” is a master class in how not to make a simple genre film.

Spoilers will follow, though if you find yourself surprised by anything in “The Circle,” you’re not really ready for a master class in film. You’re probably still stuck in Introduction to Cinema 101.

Here’s the genre “The Circle” belongs to:

A naive, callow twenty-something is hired for a too-good-to-be-true dream job at a secretive company led by a charismatic father figure and learns there’s a sinister reality behind the charming facade. Complications ensue as the twenty-something decides to expose the illegal doings of the firm, putting herself and those she loves at risk.

That’s a liberal summation of “The Circle” because the second sentence in that paragraph is only weakly implied in the film itself. It’s also, you might notice, a plot summary of the book and movie which exemplified, rather successfully, the genre “The Circle” is trying to fit into (a genre I call “Had I But Known”).

The film “The Circle” wants to be is “The Firm,” with Emma Watson in the part of naïve and callow young Tom Cruise, who discovers the secretive law firm he’s working for has one client: the Mob. A comparison of these two movies, working in the same genre with basically the same plot, provides us with a master class in how not to do a genre film.

Whatever you may think of its basic worth, as a piece of genre entertainment, “The Firm” delivers the goods. We’re introduced to a relatively likeable young lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, a recent graduate with tons of student debt, who’s offered a high-paying job at an obscure Southern law firm run by charismatic Gene Hackman. Tom and his lovely wife relocate to their new city, where they’re isolated from the support of old friends and family, and become both socially and economically dependent on Tom’s new job at The Firm. But all is not as it seems and soon Tom realizes that the supportive and enriching company to which he’s attached himself is actually a money-laundering and law-manipulating front for the Mob. Tom’s discovery puts his life and the life of his wife at risk. With pressure from outside and inside the Firm threatening Tom and his loved one, he must come up with a plan to expose the Firm while protecting himself and his wife from retaliation by the Mob and prosecution by the government. He works out a dangerous and elaborate plan to do so, ending in a climactic confrontation with the Firm’s charismatic leader in which Tom’s clever plan triumphs thanks to both his and his wife’s bravery and ingenuity.

It’s a basic pot-boiler plot, and for it to be successful only a handful of key ingredients are required, all of which “The Firm” provides:

1) A likeable, intelligent but naïve hero with a sympathetic goal.

2) An intriguing, not-all-what-he-seems villain.

3) A simple, easily explained crisis (the law firm you’re working for turns out to be a Mob front).

4) Jeopardy to the hero’s life and loved ones.

5) A clever plan developed by the hero to escape the villain’s clutches and turn the tables on the bad guys.

On the surface, “The Circle” also seems to contain all five ingredients– but only if you interpret each ingredient very very liberally.

1) A likeable, intelligent but naïve hero with a sympathetic goal:

Emma Watson plays May, a nondescript millennial in a dead end temp job. We’re supposed to find her sympathetic because anyone stuck in a dead end temp job is supposed to be sympathetic. But what, exactly, makes her likeable and intelligent? (Emma Watson is obviously likeable and projects intelligence, but I’m talking about the character she plays, May, not Emma Watson.) We know nothing about May’s goals or interests other than that she enjoys kayaking. She’s dismissive of the one non-family member who shows interest in her as a person, a childhood friend named Mercer. Her father has MS and May feels bad about that. As far as character development goes, that’s pretty much it. May is a nobody, not particularly distinguished in her ambitions or talents, not particularly likeable. She is, apparently, reasonably good at customer service. Yay for May. If she were played by anyone other than Emma Watson she’d be instantly forgettable. Tom Cruise’s character, on the other hand, is specific, if not particularly exciting: he’s a freshly minted lawyer with student debt and a lovely wife, well-educated and obviously smart, with ambitions and a goal. He may not be original but he has potential and character resources to draw upon. May is a customer support rep with a bad attitude toward one potential friend and a single hobby, kayaking. No potential, no character resources. When she discovers The Truth about her company she has no particular skill set to draw upon to accomplish point five (which will lead to the greatest failure of the film).

2) An intriguing, not-all-what-he-seems villain:

Tom Hanks plays Bailey, the Steve Jobs-esque charismatic leader of the Google-Facebook-Apple tech company “The Circle.” He’s presented as a socially forward-thinking tech entrepreneur whose main skill set, apparently, is the ability to give tendentious speeches to an audience of happy employees. At no time is he shown to be anything other than a lightweight con artist at worst. Despite the film’s heavy handed message that social media unchecked is Bad, and the assertion of one character that The Circle is up to something nefarious, and an unbelievable public display of callously poor judgment, Bailey never does anything on screen that can be described as villainous. He doesn’t threaten May’s life or the lives of her loved ones (in fact, the “villainous” tech that May comes to distrust actually saves her life, and the company’s free health care saves her family from financial ruin and provides her father with treatment for his MS). We are told (again, by a character other than May, who learns and does nothing of consequence on her own) that The Circle and its leaders are up to No Good, but exactly what that No Good consists of, other than exposing the illegal actions of a hostile Senator, we have no idea. As a villain, Tom Hanks’ Bailey is, like May, not much of anything.

3) A simple, easily explained crisis (the law firm you’re working for turns out to be a Mob front).

The Circle, the company May works for, is, on the surface, a typical successful and grandiose Silicon Valley tech firm. Its corporate culture is obnoxiously self-satisfied and myopic. Its employees are happy worker bees who believe they’re on a Mission. There’s a vaguely cult-like atmosphere. The employees are naïve, the bosses are manipulative and probably amoral, though that’s implied more than displayed. But that’s the surface reality. Underneath the surface, however, and providing the crisis that propels our hero to take her life in her hands and risk everything to expose The Truth, is the revelation that The Circle is– exactly what it appears to be on the surface: a typical successful and grandiose Silicon Valley tech firm. Wait, what? It isn’t making deals with authoritarian countries to control the citizenry through technology? Its master plan to undermine American democracy is to make it easier and a requirement that all citizens vote? Its worst crime is the enabling of amateur paparazzi leading to the accidental death of a possibly deranged young man? I may be missing something here, but while all of this is irresponsible and potentially dangerous, none of it is actually, ah, criminal. And none of it puts our heroine’s own life or the lives of her loved ones or her future happiness at risk. Which brings us to ingredient four…

4) Jeopardy to the hero’s life and loved ones.

So, once May “discovers” The Truth that The Circle is, in fact, exactly what it seems to be, what jeopardy does she face? What risk is she exposed to? What danger confronts her and her loved ones? In a tense scene, when Bailey and his apparent dark enforcer, Patton Oswalt (yep, Patton Oswalt is Bailey’s “menacing” corporate henchman) recognize that May is no longer a happy employee, they threaten her with– a better job, more money, more freedom. Or, heck, May can just keep doing what she’s doing. Whatever works best for her. We’re just here to see you get back on your feet. It’s a devastating and frightening confrontation. Yeah, no. But it’s completely on a par with the rest of the film. From one point of view, given the behavior of The Circle toward May, she’s the psychotic villain, not Bailey. There is literally no threat to May, no personal or family jeopardy, not even a hint of possible negative consequences if she decides to quit. She isn’t even reminded of legal issues regarding corporate NDAs, though in fact May doesn’t actually have any corporate secrets to expose, good, bad, or otherwise, because remember SHE’S JUST A CUSTOMER SERVICE REP. Which brings us to the last and most disastrous missing ingredient…

5) A clever plan developed by the hero to escape the villain’s clutches and turn the tables on the bad guys.

Before I get into this one, I’ll digress to share a comment a friend of mine once made about “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a movie that is the Exception That Proves The Rule of genre pictures. According to my friend, you can take Indiana Jones out of “Raiders” and the ending of the movie would be exactly the same. It’s true: if Indiana never became involved in the search for the Lost Ark, how would the ultimate outcome be different? The Nazis would have found the Ark, would have opened it as they did, and would have been consumed by the Wrath of God. Indiana’s involvement changed nothing. To be fair, he did save Marion Ravenwood’s life. She probably would have been killed if Indy hadn’t shown up in Tibet. So that’s something. And maybe the Ark wouldn’t have ended up stored in Area 51. Not that it’s ever mattered. But, essentially, Indiana Jones is irrelevant to the outcome of “Raiders,” and while it works in “Raiders” because everything else is so damned marvelous, normally a genre story in which the hero’s presence is irrelevant to the outcome is what we in the business call A Bad Thing.

May, in “The Circle,” is completely irrelevant to the outcome of the movie. Why? Because in fact she isn’t the real protagonist of the story– she’s at best a supporting character, at worst a minor cog in the arc of the actual protagonist, the man the movie should have been about, the only empowered character in the film who has a functional choice to make and an actual risk to take: Tyler.

Tyler? TYLER?

Who the hell is Tyler? Why haven’t we mentioned this guy before? What does he have to do with all this?

Tyler is a supporting character introduced toward the end of Act One, played by John Boyega in a total of three full scenes, a mysterious and close-mouthed “tech engineer” who for some unexplained reason decides to reveal the Deep Secrets of The Circle to customer rep May. The Deep Secret of The Circle is that they have a lot of underground space for server farms, i.e.: they have room to expand their data storage. Apparently this is a Bad Thing and she mustn’t tell anyone she knows. Oh, and by the way, Tyler is the tech engineer who designed the software/hardware/program/magic that makes The Circle a tech powerhouse. But these days he just wanders around the company campus getting upset by storage space and taking naïve young customer reps into his confidence. Tyler is an enigma. He’s also the Deus Ex Machina who gives May the opportunity to make a Big Speech at the end of the movie while he does the actual work of exposing the Bad Things the company is doing.

(What bad things, exactly? We never find out, but they must be Bad, because they upset Tyler, who’s also upset by storage space.)

Yes, that’s right: Tyler is the one who first discovers The Circle is doing Bad Things (they’re planning to fill storage space with data) and Tyler is the one who puts his cushy non-job at risk when he decides to expose those Bad Things, something he can do because he has the skill set necessary to take action to resolve the crisis. It isn’t even clear May’s own turn against The Circle has any influence on Tyler’s decision. In a scene obviously rewritten and re-voiced in post production, there’s an attempt to show that May persuaded Tyler to act, but it’s unconvincing. Tyler doesn’t need May to persuade him; he was previously trying to persuade her. Tyler acts for Tyler’s own reasons. May’s presence in the story is irrelevant. Through her own actions May has no fundamental impact on the story’s outcome. And unlike “Raiders,” there’s no compensating fun to be had in the rest of the film.

So, there you have it– a master class in how not to make a thriller in the Had I But Known genre. Wait till “The Circle” is on Netflix or Amazon Prime, then watch it back to back with “The Firm.” You’ll learn something.

Whether what you learn is worth the time invested is entirely up to you.

Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.