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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The politics of Minority Report

One of the pleasures of Steven Spielberg’s new film, Minority Report, is that it deftly takes on some serious sociopolitical issues in such a way that we actually have to think about them.

While he may be the most successful filmmaker of all time, Spielberg isn’t exactly known for making “serious” films. The extremely notable exception to this claim is Schindler’s List, which I will henceforth ignore since it screws up all of the generalizations that are about to follow. Otherwise, most of Spielberg’s movies can be fairly described as escapist. Even the ones that deal with ostensibly serious topics, like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan, have a crowd-pleasing quality that belies their subject matter. Nobody drags themselves to a Spielberg movie out of artistic duty because it is “good for you” (like, say, an Ingmar Bergman film). They go willingly because they know for a certainty that they will be royally entertained. Spielberg’s most popular films tend to be pure escapism. I will rest my case with the following examples: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook and Jurassic Park.

One thing that Spielberg’s fabulous commercial success has obscured is the fact that there is no reason that crowd-pleasing entertainment can’t also be art. The best example of this is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. If Spielberg stopped working today (and if he hadn’t made Schindler’s List), E.T. would be his life’s masterpiece. While the movie made container ships full of money, it tends to get underrated as an artistic achievement, probably because 1) it is science fiction and 2) children feature prominently in the cast. It is actually one of the best films ever made, and I have often regretted not having it on my top ten list of English-language films. But I decided that, on such a short list, it wouldn’t be fair to have two films by the same director and so Spielberg’s slot had to go to that pesky Schindler’s List.

Anyway, given Spielberg’s oeuvre to date, it is interesting to see him now come up with a movie that might actually offer an insight or two into current political issues. What does Minority Report have to tell us in this age of warring on terrorism? Since I must necessarily discuss some plot details, which may best be left as surprise to those who haven’t yet seen the movie, I will hereby warn those people away. (See you next week.)

The basic story of Minority Report is that, in the year 2054, the U.S. government will have come up with a way to foretell when an individual is going to commit murder. This allows a special “pre-crime” unit to swoop into action and arrest the pre-perp before the crime is committed. (In the interest of cinematic excitement, this always seems to happen mere seconds before the crime is to be committed.) A pilot program in Washington D.C. has cut the murder rate down to zero. At the beginning of the film (as in Paul Verhoeven’s somewhat similar futuristic crime movie, Robocop), we see the situation through public-relations eyes and we see the virtues of the system in an extremely positive light. Our point-of-view character is Tom Cruise, who is totally gung-ho for the project. If the murder rate has gone from a bunch to zilch, then this pre-crime idea must be a good thing, right? This is the ultimate profiling system. And it’s not based on race or gender or any other politically incorrect attributes. In the course of the film, however, we learn a few things that disturb the comfortable picture. (In one of the film’s nice, but gory, touches, Cruise ends up having to see the system literally through new eyes.) We learn that a huge number of people have been arrested and imprisoned in some sort of suspended animation. We learn that the Fifth Amendment seems to have gone by the wayside and robotic spiders can enter your home at will and scan your eyeballs, even if you are sitting on the john. Most troubling, we ultimately learn that the future predicted by the government’s “pre-cogs” (essentially, glorified psychics) doesn’t necessarily have to happen. Oops. So when you arrest someone before they have committed the crime, you can’t be sure they actually would have committed the crime.

In the end, this future United States is no different than other police states throughout history where crime is kept low by arresting lots of people who simply might be a threat. You round up more guilty people by casting a wide net and, if you pick up some innocent people as well, that’s just the price we pay for security. In its concern for civil liberties, the film displays a predictably Hollywood liberal tilt. The tricky thing is that, in the pre-crime episode that opens the film, we have absolutely no doubt that the betrayed husband will kill his wife and her lover, just as the pre-cogs have foreseen. Is the film saying that the murders should have been allowed to happen in order not to infringe on the husband’s civil rights? What has happened is that the issue has become skewed because the possibility has been introduced that someday it will be possible to predict the future. Or, rather, that society will come to believe that it is possible to predict the future. How likely it is that this will someday happen, well, I can’t foretell.

Some people think that this future is already here in the current war on terrorism. Arguably, the question of whether to tolerate the locking up of a few innocent people in order to make sure you’ve got the guilty ones is a little murkier when the guilty ones may be planning to kill thousands of people at a time. (Still, let us not forget that the film is first and foremost a fantasy. We know it’s a fantasy because, in the movie, Tom Cruise has been estranged from his wife for years and he is still living alone—instead of being shacked up with a hot babe like Penélope Cruz.)

Still, the fact is put forth in the movie that people have come to believe that the future can be predicted. The psychics are referred to as “oracles” and their swimming pool is called “the temple.” In other words, people’s faith in the pre-cogs is quasi-religious, if not outright religious. In a very subtle manner, the film has pointed out the dangers of a theocratic state and the indispensability of a wall between church and state. In short, there should be plenty here to annoy conservatives.

But will conservatives find the movie annoying? Not necessarily, since there is a healthy strain here of distrusting government, which strikes a chord with much of the right as well as with some of the left. There is also a suggestion that the pre-crime unit is essentially persecuting “thought crimes,” i.e. people are arrested for what they are thinking rather than what they actually do. This may well resonate with people who oppose so-called “hate crimes” for the same reason, usually people on the right who feel that such crimes give preference to specific social groups.

In the end, Minority Report is one of those rare films that manages to deal with touchy political issues in such a way that the audience sees the questions for what they are rather than being manipulated by rhetoric and knee-jerk slogans.

-S.L., 27 June 2002

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