'The Circle' Is a Thriller About the Total Loss of Privacy

In a world of constant internet surveillance, what could go wrong?

by J. W. McCormack
May 2 2017, 4:00am

Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Now that internet providers can legally harvest your browser history for advertisers, it's probably too late to begin fretting over whether the whole notion of privacy rightly belongs to Gen X nostalgia. A better question for the present might be: If something happens without being traceable online, did it happen at all? Or as the Facebook/Google analogue at the heart of James Ponsoldt's new film The Circle puts it: "Secrets are lies. Privacy is theft."

In another era—that of Ponsoldt's inspirations The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and Todd Haynes's Safe—the film's premise would seem paranoid: Larky, professionally unfulfilled millennial Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lands a plush job at the California tech company behind TruYou, the software that "cured" the internet by completely eliminating user anonymity. Through a combination of brand over-identification and some bullying from Tom Hanks as company head Eamon Bailey, Holland agrees to "go transparent," in which every second of her life (save three minutes for bathroom breaks) is broadcast across the internet's millions of viewers. It's a demo for what Hanks and his co-conspirator Tom Stenton (a scowling Patton Oswalt) really want to demonstrate: how their new line of GoPro-style cameras and a worldwide network of participatory voyeurs could make sure politicians are permanently on the record and quickly hunt down fugitives via crowdsourcing. What could go wrong?

We're meant to see Mae as a perky victim of social media anxiety. Having aced the job interview—she smugly answers the question "Joan Baez or Joan Crawford?" with "Joan Didion"—she's initially delighted in the sprawling, ongoing party that is the Circle's campus ("Oh, my God," she exclaims in an early scene, "is that Beck?" The camera pans over to an adjacent bandshell: It is!). But after being scolded for her penchant for sulky kayaking sprees—at the Circle there's no such thing as a solitary pursuit—she becomes an acolyte of Bailey's belief "in the perfectibility of human beings."

Meanwhile, the moral voices belong to the men. There's her rootsy ex, Mercer, who makes his living building deer-antler chandeliers and treats the newly wired Mae with a disgust that's strikingly anomalous coming from actor Ellar Coltrane (the boy from Boyhood); mysterious John Boyega, inexplicably hiding from the Circle by attending all of their parties, albeit with an alluring reluctance; and Mae's father (the late, great Bill Paxton), whose MS testifies to the comparative crudity of biological hardware, with its un-patchable bugs and limited warranty.

Courtesy of STX Entertainment

But since all these figures come off as either suspect or prudishly luddite, the movie's actual moral insight is more difficult to pin down. The film is adapted from Dave Eggers's 2013 novel, which read as something like print's revenge on the digital medium, with one memorably barbed scene detailing one of the Circle's top brass executive's objections to closed-source writing (that is, a book), namely that it is perishable and obscene in its author/reader intimacy.

This is obviously harder to bring out in a made-for-the-masses motion picture with A-list stars and a budget that certainly doesn't eschew technology. The effect of watching a film take on the internet is more a case of gizmo versus gizmo; like Black Mirror, its choreography employs all manner of state-of-the-art prestidigitation to make texting feel suspenseful, dramatize mundane clicking, or simulate the giddy nakedness of impulse-posting. My favorite sequences are the chase scenes, where crowds of people lurch forward like zombies, smartphones clasped in their outstretched hands as they pursue the objects of their fascination.

But then, as Ponsoldt is quick to point out, technology was never the real target of The Circle's satire. Rather, it's the elimination of the private self that concerns him. "The snag is: Whether technology is being used to send civilians to outer space or explore the bottom of the ocean or map the mind or to cure cancer, if, in the exchange, our personal information is being knowingly or unknowingly taken from us—stored, perhaps shared or sold to the highest bidder—that feels like a human rights issue," he recently told me over the phone. "Because living in a surveillance state doesn't feel like real freedom if everything you're doing is being monitored."

Eggers agreed, telling me that the story shouldn't be construed as anti-tech any more than All the President's Men was anti-government. "The Circle is an example of a company abusing its power," he wrote in an email. "They see their right to information as superseding, in all cases, anyone's right to privacy."

Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Ponsoldt went further in pointing out that it's unchecked corporate scrying that worries him, not the singularity so much as how it "gives a platform to buffoons to manipulate it" and how "our interactions and basic institutions are shifting in a way that reduces our humanity to a collection of information, points upon which we can best be advertised to."

This point—that technology itself is not the corruptive influence, only the tool of crooked Silicon Valley monopolies—becomes clear in the movie's ending, which diverges abruptly from Eggers's much bleaker denouement. The film's upbeat takeaway is that, as moral selves—and as consumers—we can still choose between free will and justifiable paranoia. But, leaving the theater, I couldn't help but wonder if the difference was like the false binaries Mae is asked to choose between in her job interview: Paul or John? Sonic or Mario? Needs of the society or needs of the individual? Trenchant social commentary—or Pepsi ad?

Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions , the Culture Trip, the New York Times, and the New Republic.

The Circle is in theaters now.