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Review: The Circle (2017)

The Circle (2017)

Directed by: James Pondsoldt

Premise: A young woman (Emma Watson) lands a job at The Circle, a massive tech company led by a charismatic CEO (Tom Hanks). The new employee becomes the poster child for the company’s campaign for “total transparency” in which no one has any secrets.

What Works: The Circle does an excellent job of capturing American culture in the age of social media. The film does this by creating images that recall the most recognizable icons of online and tech culture. The titular company of The Circle recreates the casual and dormitory amenities of Silicon Valley firms like Google and Facebook, its CEO is clearly based upon the popular image of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and the lecture sessions recreate the vibe of TED Talks. The Circle also dramatizes the way technology shapes who we are and how we relate to one another and some of the best sequence of the movie satirize the cultish qualities of Silicon Valley and online culture. This is done especially well in a scene in which Emma Watson’s character is confronted by members of the company’s social media team and is pressured into participating in events, subscribing to online accounts, and surrendering her privacy. Through its central character, The Circle dramatizes the shifts in American culture over the past generation; Watson’s character experiences the normalization of oversharing as well as the mob mentality of online life. As she is recruited to become a spokesperson for the company’s transparency initiative, Watson’s character goes from an unknown low-level employee to an online celebrity. The filmmakers effectively use non-diegetic elements like speech bubbles of social media posts and text messages to visualize the way in which we are never really alone in the digital age. In one of the film’s bolder moments, The Circle postulates how digital media and democracy might intersect, specifically in the way voting and other democratic mechanisms might be turned over to private enterprise in the name of expediency. 

What Doesn’t: The Circle entertains some really interesting ideas but it doesn’t see them through. For instance, when the movie presents the idea of running elections (and thereby democracy) through a social media company the scene possesses an implicit whiff of caution. It is as though the filmmakers are trying to tell us that this is a bad idea—and indeed it is—but they never get around to dramatizing why. This is the bigger problem of The Circle. The film is simultaneously suspicious of digital media and enthralled by it. It’s perfectly acceptable to be ambivalent about the impact of social media on our lives; the topic is complex with many advantages and disadvantages. But this movie never gets into the substance of the many issues that it brings up. At one point during a lecture session, Watson’s character says that it is immoral to keep our experiences to ourselves when we could be sharing them. Again, the film seems to want to say that this is wrong and that privacy is acceptable but the filmmakers never get there because they’re already onto the next idea. The Circle suffers from a lack of follow through on its most compelling ideas and its dramatization of digital celebrity isn’t especially revelatory. As Watson’s character becomes an internet celebrity, The Circle reiterates observations and conventions that we’ve already seen in movies like EDtv and Network. The Circle really loses its way in the ending. A conspiracy plotline emerges in which Watson’s character realizes that her employers demand transparency from everyone but themselves and that the company’s altruistic image is really a front to advance something insidious. This is poorly done. Whatever the company is up to is never more than implicit and the film doesn’t really come to a conclusion.
Bottom Line: The Circle is about two-thirds of a good movie. It has some compelling ideas and a workable premise but it doesn’t pull the pieces together into a dramatically or intellectually satisfying story. Much of what this picture is trying to do is accomplished more successfully in the HBO series Silicon Valley.

Episode: #646 (May 7, 2017)