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Tom Cruise in Minority Report

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

Photos: David James

Minority Report: Fight the Future?

By Ben Patrick Johnson

NEW YORK, 26 June 2002—Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster Minority Report is almost prescient in its timeliness, appearing at a moment when everyone in the U.S. wants to anticipate and avert, rather than respond to, acts of violence in the possible future.

The U.S.-led war on terror presents, in several guises, the new conundrum. In foreign policy, President Bush offers radical new doctrine: perceived threats to American security will be met with pre-emptive military strikes, with or without congressional authority or even notification. On the home front, airport security, FBI agents, ordinary police and even individual landlords (fearful of apartment bombings) turn to profiling strategies, however crude, to spot threats to homeland security-most relying on national origin, perceived race and religion, and patterns of behavior deemed "unusual." Meanwhile, the Brooklyn, New York-based Jewish Defense Group combines, plausibly, past threats by Al Qaeda-linked terrorists against schools and synagogues with present, vague concerns over fuel tanker truck attacks on unspecified targets, and launches their own armed vigilante patrols over New York Police Department opposition. Who, we must ask, can have the authority or the prescience to envision and respond to crimes that haven't happened yet?

Minority Report takes up this very question, exploring law enforcement in a "what if" Washington, D.C., in the year 2054. Murder has been suppressed for six years by the Department of Pre-Crime, a crack team of detectives and cops who harvest the woozy, nightmarish visions of a trio of precognitive seers to view murders before they occur and prevent them. It's a tricky proposition: arresting citizens not for crimes they are suspected of already having committed, but for crimes they seem destined to commit in the future.

All goes well until the precognitives envision a murder committed by the department's head detective, John Anderton, played solidly by Tom Cruise. Then all hell breaks loose. (Or, perhaps, it is all heaven breaking loose, as a Department of Justice observer, well-played by Colin Farrell, dryly suggests early in the film. He compares the Pre-Crime program to a theocracy, with the precognitives acting as deities and the cops as priests.)

Neal McDonough and Tom Cruise in  Minority Report

Neal McDonough and Tom Cruise  

Farrell's character makes a valid point. Albert Camus once declared on the page, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." But Camus may have been shortsighted, for the character in Minority Report has discovered another fundamental conundrum: the philosophical quicksand beneath the proposition of tampering with destiny-in this case the destiny of one man to take the life of another.

Ultimately, it is the throwback 19th century notion that man is a creature of free will, and thereby his own destiny, which allows the taut, bleak film to close on a note of hope, not only for its protagonists, but by extension, for humankind.

The film on the whole is the work of a master. There is much to praise and little to fault in Spielberg's storytelling as he flips whodunit into who's-gonna-do-it. The film, clocking nearly two and half hours, never lags and keeps us well engaged. It is tightly edited, alternating between the looped, acid-trip precognitions, political back story, some philosophical grandstanding, and high-energy chase sequences. Janusz Kaminsky's cinematography, exemplary in previous Spielberg outings Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, is gritty and hyper-real in a way that lays a disturbing bed for Scott Farrar's visual effects. Kaminsky's palette of colors is alternately muted and saturated. He effectively sets a scene's tone then lets it be, never hoarding center stage with his artistry. The same may be said of John Williams's excellent, restrained score, which provides an eerie undertone to the film.  

Max Von Sydow in  Minority Report

Max Von Sydow

Production Designer Alex McDowell resists the temptation to paint an apocalyptic landscape, and gives us instead a Washington, D.C., of the mid 21st century that is neither bleak nor utopian. There is a hard coldness to Anderton's apartment that reflects the character's inner torment. Government buildings are hostile, reflective, metallic. But the grass in Georgetown is green in the hissing of lawn sprinklers, and historic row houses stand proud. Anderton's ex-wife's country home is an idyllic portrait of clapboard and fruit trees.

Spielberg corrals his actors well, skillfully weaving together sensibilities as disparate as those of Cruise and Max Von Sydow. Though he allows the film's philosophizing to leave his players' mouths sounding a bit forensic, it never reaches the point of absurdity. In the hands of a less talented director, Scott Frank and Jon Cohen's screenplay might come off heavy-handed, yet Spielberg makes their smart writing sing.

The film only threatens to lose its emotional connection with us during some of the action sequences. Too well choreographed, the chase scenes seem rote—we've seen these moves before, and in movies where they were far more appropriate. In such a fine piece as Minority Report, a rock 'em sock 'em duck-and-dodge fight sequence is only useful as a concession to summer blockbuster formula. Saving Private Ryan proved that Spielberg knows how to show violence for what it often is-blunt, quick, and brutal. A like measure of cinematic frankness here would have served him well. That said, Spielberg has delivered a crowd-pleaser, likely to please both those seeking a Saturday-night action flick and the art house clique at the Tuesday matinee.

Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton in  Minority Report

Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton


Minority Report is praise-worthy if not brilliant. It's highly entertaining, and raises some valid philosophical questions at a critical point in our global history. While it lacks the sort of artistic or philosophical mandate that is the hallmark of a work of greatness, it is the product of an artist operating at the pinnacle of his talent. That, if nothing else, makes this film a pleasure to behold.

Four stars


Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His latest novel will be published in October 2002.

 

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