It has to be a strange existence being the most likable man in the world. One imagines for Tom Hanks, beloved apple pie papa bear of American cinema, the chance to relish in less-than-wholesome roles must be few and far between – which makes his obvious enthusiasm at playing such a role a joy to behold for the average cinemagoer. The Circle, James Ponsoldt and novelist Dave Eggers’ semi-futuristic techno-thriller, does him one better, weaponizing that friendly everyman charm Hanks works with such ease to nefarious ends. Here he plays Eamon Bailey, the Steve Jobs-esque founder of the expansive social networking platform of the title, a shadowy group with far-reaching abilities and frighteningly little oversight, all hidden beneath a consumer friendly, college campus meets cult façade. Into Bailey’s circle (har-har) enters Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman working a thankless job in customer phone service, until a friend within The Circle gives her a shot at a position within the company. Soon after, Mae finds herself at the heart of a number of thorny issues surrounding the network’s policies regarding sharing and openness. Naturally, the further into this privacy-plumbing company Mae goes, the deeper the secrets.
It’s a timely story, and the comparisons between The Circle and companies like Apple and Facebook are obvious. To that end, the film lets its egregiously millennial, hashtags and kale-smoothie type characters tell you everything you need to know about the workplace and its denizens. This most notably manifests in an early scene between Mae and two worker drones at the Circle company, who essentially strong-arm her into joining their vast social networking sphere with not so passive aggression that eagerly toes the line between satirical and farcical. It is through Mae’s eyes that we see the world of The Circle, though she herself remains a cipher for much of the film, one who makes some truly mind-boggling decisions at the behest of a narrative aimed at pushing its thematic musing further down the viewers’ throats. She is ambitious but modest, intuitively awake to the tech world but almost childishly naïve to its many dangers. Despite a game performance by Watson, the character never really finds a consistent rhythm or internal logic, meaning she goes where the film goes (or more consistently, where the film requires exposition or a mention of ‘big ideas’). Consequently, this takes her character to some interestingly murky moral areas, including a climactic later sequence that is almost entirely her fault, but one that the film fatally does not analyse in any seriously critical sense regarding her position as the hero-figure in the film. Her lack of introspection would almost be jaw-dropping, if we hadn’t already established her flimsiness as a character earlier in the narrative.
And this, I think, is the key issue at the heart of The Circle – it is a film in crisis about what it wants to say. It is at once both murky in its moralising and utterly transparent in its telegraphing of who the bad guys are going to be from the outset. There are interesting hints at something more within the frame of the story – government conflicts and totalitarian regimes are hinted at, but left untouched – while the film ultimately seems to settle on the idea that the loss of privacy for everyone is a good thing, or at least an inevitable thing, and that it must be both embraced by everyone and enforced by everyone. Mae consistently remains utterly enamoured to the potentialities of The Circle itself, and its abilities to unite the entire world in a way that removes privacy – and thus secrets – entirely, and insists its flaws remain at the feet of those in charge of the company, rather than the tech itself. The end of internet privacy is a runaway train, the film seems to suggest, may as well hop in and hold on. It is frustrating, as the film in its early stages seems to be heading toward a more palatable and thought-provoking position that lays the blame at the feet of everyone, for allowing such technology to flourish, but shies away from this for a more conventional defeat-the-bad-guy denouement. This is hammered home in an especially troubling final shot that is immediately at odds with any suggestion of Mae as a heroine figure in the film.
James Ponsoldt is an incredibly able and talented director – his The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour were, respectively, among the best teen and walk-and-talk films of American cinema released in the past decade – with a real knack for interplay between actors. His choice as director here is a strange one. He seems uncomfortable with the more tech-heavy elements of the film, but also leans on them in a way that tragically disservices a stacked cast (Patton Oswalt! Karen Gillan! Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane! Bill Paxton in a final role!). John Boyega suffers the worst, in a supporting role that seems to hint at his being a key figure in the game, only to vanish almost entirely from the film with barely a mention.
Fear of technology as a concept has been around almost as long as film itself, but rarely has there been a point in its history where techno-terror has been as pronounced as it is now. Everything from Black Mirror to the Fast and Furious franchise has offered its thoughts on the threats tech provides to basic human privacy, let alone humanity itself, so to enter into this particular fray with an original concept requires the film to have a damn good reason for existing. The Circle almost manages this, but perhaps unintentionally, through the morally questionable outcomes of the story and the strange, likely-unconsidered implications of the choices that Mae makes throughout the film, ultimately fails to clear that bar. And despite the Machiavellian puppet-master antics of Hanks’ semi-antagonist, the film frustratingly never really goes there with him, meaning that the character remains assuredly nefarious, but never outright villainous. Damn if he can’t rock a great dad-sweater though.