What marks a person of virtue? What qualities make up that person’s character? How do those qualities show themselves in daily living? The Circle doesn’t really answer these questions but it does raise questions about how we make choices.
Character is sometimes described as what we do when no one else is looking. In The Circle someone is always looking. If I knew that someone was watching me 24/7, would I act differently? Would I make different choices?
Mae (Emma Watson) holds a mundane customer-service job until her friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), gets her an interview at The Circle, a huge data collection and storage corporation. Mae nails the interview and at her first Dream Friday (a company-wide gathering for rallying the troops) she’s impressed by the new technology being rolled out. It’s a tiny camera the size of a marble that can be stuck anywhere. Tom Hanks as Circle co-founder and charismatic leader, Bailey, strikes a very Steve Jobs-like persona, confidently spouting the party line.
Coming into work on the Monday after her first week with the company, she’s approached by two people who tell her she’s the most mysterious member of The Circle. You see, she spent the weekend with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton in his last role). Her dad has MS and needs constant help. The two wonder why she hasn’t participated in any of The Circle’s extracurricular activities (which are officially optional but not really). She hasn’t answered any of her internal social media contacts. The unspoken rule at The Circle is that you let everyone know what you’re doing at all times and, preferably, do them with people at the company because, as the company motto says, “Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.”
What the company wants is full transparency. Just imagine if no one had any secrets. Imagine if every communication of a politician was instantly known to every person who cared to watch. Imagine if people all over the world were able to watch someone’s every move. Crime rates would go down, political backstabbing would not be possible. It would make everyone totally accountable for their actions.
When Mae agrees to test out a new technology by wearing a camera every hour of every day (well, except in the bathroom), at first it’s fun. Her parents get involved and soon millions of people watch Mae go about her business. When her camera catches a private, intimate moment by accident, the emotional strain of constant surveillance begins to show. When the evolving technology causes serious harm to one of Mae’s closest friends, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), Mae realizes that the promised of The Circle aren’t all they crack up to be.
The idea of digital surveillance gone wild is not new in the world of film. The Circle’s plot has some serious holes that make the story not quite believable. The biggest one is that Mae falls for the falsehoods The Circle spouts way too easily. However, it still gives us cause to pause and think about what motivates our choices. Do we act a certain way just because we know we are being watched and then act differently when we’re alone? The movie is really about taking responsibility for our own choices because it is the right thing to do and not just because someone may be watching us.
This is called character and it’s the qualities of character that we try to instill in our kids from the moment they’re born – things like caring, fairness, respect, trustworthiness, responsibility, kindness, forgiveness, and generosity. The problems that arose in The Circle happened only because people were willing to watch and live vicariously through Mae. If each person were more respectful of others, lived their own life to the full, perhaps we wouldn’t feel such a need to know so much about others, especially what it intimate and private about their lives. Sometimes knowing everything is not better.