Minority Report: Spielberg and the freedom of choice

The first time I saw Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report I was in my teens and part of an English class taught by Mr. King. Mr. King was arguably my first mentor, a teacher who taught for pleasure and who drew satisfaction from seeing his students evolve as people, not just students. He would often push us toward great art and equally great and challenging ideas. He would recommend us books, movies, tell us about historical events worth looking into and always stress the importance of not discarding anything that might contribute to our growth. At the time we were kids – and therefore loud and obnoxious – and often caused quite a stir before recognizing that whatever Mr. King was about to share with us was worth our time.
I remember feeling confused when he showed us Minority Report – a futuristic detective story where Tom Cruise plays a cop intent on proving his innocence with regards to a murder he’s yet to commit. For many years I held onto vague memories of this movie. A few days ago I decided to return to it and try and see what Mr. King wanted to convey to us the day he brought it to class.

Tom Cruise is John Anderton: a cop specialized in Precrime.

The important thing to keep in mind is that Minority Report is a blend of Philip K Dick’s obsession of power and politics and Steven Spielberg’s undying sentimentalism, which makes it an intriguing mix of dark, borderline horror imagery and old-fashioned crime thriller modelled after Alfred Hitchcock. The story, set in 2054, revolves around a Precrime program of cops specialized in anticipating and preventing homicides set to occur in Washington, DC. This seemingly flawless system has been able to reduce murders down to zero over a period of six years. It is made possible thanks to three clairvoyant humans, also known as “Precogs” who can predict the names of the potential victim and the soon-to-be murderer in advance. I say “seemingly flawless” because that’s what the film is about – can a system be absolutely perfect and provide us with all the answers we need?
Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a commanding officer of the Precrime program who is tormented by the ghosts of the past – his family life has disintegrated following the mysterious disappearance of his son, hence his dedication to solving crimes before they can take place.
All seems to be going well as the country prepares to vote on a nation-wide adoption of Precrime until one day John is indicated as the next soon-to-be-murderer. That’s when the film’s dilemma is set into motion.

The system functions thanks to three clairvoyant “Precogs.”

Can you stop or alter your fate? After all, John Anderton has been fighting against crime his whole life, his mission being to prevent other people from experiencing the kind of suffering he’s going to be haunted by for the rest of his life. Over the years he’s reduced himself to being a drug addict hopped up on painkillers who – in the few instances he’s not working – spends his time obsessively rewatching old home movies of his son and his ex-wife.
Deep down, he’s one of the finest men the program can offer, single-handedly protecting the nation’s capital, the face of Precrime. Or is he? Can a man like him commit cold-blooded murder? Once his name is put on the wanted list, all of his former colleagues start tracking him down. Anderton’s only way out is by proving his own innocence, thus proving the fallibility of the Precogs’ prediction. It’s by meeting the creator of Precrime, a retired old lady named Dr. Iris Hineman, that Anderton learns that the system is indeed flawed: sometimes one of the Precogs disagrees with the others’ prediction, but for the sake of functionality, this disagreement is discarded as “minority report” – these reports are stored inside the female Precog, but nobody has ever accessed them.

In his spare time, John is obsessed with images from the past.

For John, this revelation is a crushing defeat. His duty was to protect others by putting away those that were certain to become murderers. But, since the system can also make mistakes, how many of those he put away were truly innocent? How many of them would have been able to change their fate had he not intervened? To go any deeper into the movie’s plot would spoil the fun of what Spielberg manages to turn into a passionate story of redemption and a thrilling action film of a world that is so far gone into believing its own lies that the real suffering of the poor is hardly noticed anymore. Washington, DC -despite being a murder-free zone – resembles a post-apocalyptic landscape of drug addicts and homeless families oppressed by a system that is widely believed to be perfect. A system where everyone can have their eyes scanned for security purposes at any time of the day. John, like many others, contributes to this oppression. But, once the chips are stacked and he must fight for his own innocence and survival, he’s plunged into the very core of this murky reality, shot with great skill by Spielberg’s regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. The initial images of pristine, sterile and high-tech spaces is soon replaced by depressing projects and dark alleyways, where even the tiniest ray of sunlight is welcomed with gratitude or met with horror and shock, depending on who’s coming your way.

Spielberg fashions scenes of pure tension.

From the get-go, Minority Report poses a striking dilemma, especially if we consider the time period it was released in – a year after 9/11, with more and more people buying into the idea of protection by prevention, companies and governments giving us the compulsively sought out sense of safety through questionable programs and initiatives that more often than not led to other dangerous and unpredictable scenarios which we still cannot – no matter if we downloaded the latest update or subscribed for the latest newsletter – stay on top of and predict in advance. Like Anderton, this realization which slowly crept up on us only in recent years has made a huge impact on our way of life and the extreme reactions it caused among people who now seem to see evil and conspiracies anywhere they look.
Spielberg has always preferred to tell stories of corporate and government greed and power from the perspective of common individuals and their ability to step up to the plate. Think of Saving Private Ryan‘s protagonist, or Liam Neeson’s character in Schindler’s List and Roy Scheider’s police chief in Jaws. There’s countless examples of Spielberg’s fascination with the everyday man and his untapped potential in the face of impending chaos and social unrest. In the case of Minority Report, Spielberg further enhances Philip K Dick’s original idea (from the short story the movie is based on) of man’s freedom of choice as superior to a system built to predict mankind’s fate. Tom Cruise’s John Anderton can overcome his own fate by undertaking action, by fighting his own primal instincts.

John, like many of us, must fight his worst enemy – himself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mr. King and his teachings ever since he was tragically killed in a car accident almost a decade ago, and I was glad to revisit Minority Report and come to the conclusion that showing us this unusually dark and complex crime thriller at the time was his way of telling us, “You got the world in your hands. You can make of it what you want, what you set your mind to. You can do it.” I can almost hear him say that. Yes, I think I can.


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