‘The Circle’ Tiptoes Around Big Privacy Issues

I’ On Culture

I was greatly disappointed by The Circle. In theory, it is a searing look at the erosion of privacy that we have all endured since the rise of the internet, but by the end, it just muddles around seemingly uncertain whether losing our privacy is bad when society as a whole can keep us in line and make oh-so-much progress once it’s gone.

Mae (Emma Watson) takes a job at one of the great new gigantic high-tech social media companies, a real chance to get ahead. The company, called The Circle, collects personal information on everyone, generally without them being aware of it, and then processes it and uses it “all to serve you better.” Corporate leader Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) stresses the value of more data, so it can be used to serve, and his workers all nod, proud to be part of the group.

The company is launching a new product, a mini-camera that can be placed anywhere, simply attached to a wall if necessary. With more cameras, people will be more “transparent;” with constant surveillance, they will have to be more honorable. Mae volunteers to wear one of the devices everywhere “except in the bathroom.”

The problem with the movie is that it lacks a real point. Lack of privacy is a real issue, but having a lot of cameras around makes it far easier to stop crime. London is filled with cameras, and the police use them. Check out most crime shows on television, and the police use them to track criminals. I admire that, but somehow, I get the feeling that these companies can go a lot further than that.

There have already been investigations into the use of data about all of us. Any time most of us are on the web, we leave information that is used to target the advertising we see.

I was thinking about a vacation in Alaska back in January and looked up some information. I still see ads for winter boots. Anytime I buy anything on Amazon, I get lots of ads assuming I want similar products. Yes, it is a nice service that lets me know when books by a favorite author or a similar work is available. But I wonder whether I am pleased that Jeff Bezos and his not-so-merry elves know about the special anti-itch medication I bought three years ago.

Director James Ponsoldt raises many interesting ideas but goes nowhere with them. I felt he was trying to walk a tightrope to be fair, but that is what I want in a documentary, not in a work of fiction. If he worries about our privacy being invaded, then that should be the focus, and if he is happy about surveillance, the film should follow that path. Instead, we get neither.

There is a lot of fun dealing with the groupthink of the corporation. Mae is quizzed on why she misses weekend “optional” events and learns to mouth all the inane slogans that companies mount and clearly don’t believe. Isn’t it fun when Google and Apple claim to be supporters of freedom of speech while assisting the Chinese government crackdown on dissidents?

The cast is generally wasted, although Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton (in one of his last roles) are wonderful as the parents, who doubt a lot of the pap coming from the company. Watson comes across as a bit too smart to be quite as accepting as she is. Hanks comes across as an “everyman,” the perfect person to ask for trust as he backstabs. The fellow workers are all in their own ways laughable and fearsome.

Privacy is a vital issue today, and we lose more of it every month. My iPhone not only records all calls and texts and emails and photos, it is available to others if they have the right tools. The fact that almost all of it is horrendously boring (except for the photos of my grandkids, who are adorable) does not matter.

On top of that, it serves as a GPS device if someone wants to know where I am, and there are new devices already out on the market that can repeat back what I said. How long before there are devices actually in our beds and bathrooms?

We need some good stories about the problems and possibilities. This film, alas, is not one of them.