Political Paranoia as Prophecy: Tom Cruise as the besieged hero in Minority Report and Oblivion

by Daniel Garrett Volume 18 issue 1 / January 2014 13 minutes (3032 words)

Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg, 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks, 2002

Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski, Universal Pictures, 2013

Culture—literature and the other arts as well as social manners and religion and science—has a restraining impact on the inclinations of marauding power. What happens when that restraint is diminished? Human existence grows ignorant, narrow: animal, or merely utilitarian. Stories are interesting in themselves, as entertainment, and they are also symbolic of experiences and philosophical questions that we consider significant. Thought is the most intimate, most individual, most important aspect of being human. It is therefore the thing most likely to inspire suspicion. In both Minority Report and Oblivion, Tom Cruise as the hero in each film is a besieged man. The system in which he, beautiful and resolute, a figure of honor and skill as well as torment, lives and works is revealed as not only notably imperfect but more illusion than reality. How much does a man want to know? Is a man or a woman willing to sacrifice liberty or serenity or companionship? In Minority Report_—a fiction film, inspired by a 1956 Philip K. Dick story—the world is one in which intuition, surveillance, technology, and state power create a situation that permits the arrest and conviction of people for crimes that have been predicted but not yet committed. It is a nightmare scenario. In _Oblivion, a beautiful but desolate future world of efficiency and companionship turns out to be a place of duplicity, exploitation, and betrayal. How is a man or woman to bear a terrible knowledge; and how will he or she act with courage or responsibility?

What are we willing to sacrifice for security? Which of us does not want to know about possible dangers? Who does not want to be protected? Yet, the recent publicity surrounding the release of documents that prove the international surveillance of ordinary citizens and elected officials by the American security apparatus, while fighting violent terrorism, has provoked consternation and outrage around the world—and also fear. Is that irony? We have nothing to fear but fear itself: the actions taken to protect, to alleviate fear, have instead inspired fear. Telephone calls within the United States of America, and calls to and from other countries, have been recorded, documented. Proponents have argued that metadata collections—being able to track the origins of calls—might have prevented the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack, if jihadist Khalid al-Mihdhar’s San Diego calls to Al Qaeda had been traced (The New Yorker, “Talk of the Town,” January 13, 2014). Others argued that the failure of different agencies to share the information they did have was what led to the failure to anticipate the trade center attack. Of course, sharing more information among agencies is what led to classified documents becoming available to Edward Snowden, the son of a federal court clerk mother and a coast guard officer father, the young man who alerted the world to the invasions of privacy; and after shrewdly fleeing with evidence that he, very methodically, has released to established newspapers, Edward Snowden, while in exile in Russia, has been charged with espionage. Following the initial scandal, early reports that Edward Snowden had been a high school dropout before getting a graduate equivalency diploma seem an obvious attempt to discredit someone who had outwitted the United States government, having the presence of mind to raise questions from a safe distance that his colleagues who were aware of the mass surveillance had not. Is Snowden a patriot or a traitor? Snowden believed that basic freedoms of thought and speech and creativity and association were compromised (Time magazine, “The Dark Prophet,” December 23, 2013). That mass surveillance of communication and commercial transactions has been shocking enough, but it occurs at a time when other issues, related issues, inspire questions and doubt. There are millions of Americans in prison for what could be considered very minor crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. There are hundreds of thousands of African-American and Latino men who have been stopped and frisked by the police in New York on nothing more than free-floating suspicion. There have been also court cases and legal decisions in which men have been convicted and imprisoned for the expression of violent thought, for the supposition that they were planning a crime. What was once paranoia seems now like prophecy.

The story in Minority Report takes place in the year 2054, focusing on a policeman in Washington. He, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), is a capable but traumatized policeman, grieving for a lost son; and his police work depends on law, technology, and intuition. Three telepaths predict future crimes. Anderton works for Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), and Anderton and the crime program he leads—a program dependent on the anticipation of crime, and the arrest of people before the crime is committed—is investigated by Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), who has doubts about the legitimacy of such a program. The film has aspects of a crime picture, a detective story, though it utilizes diverse technology: retinal scans, flying jet packs, electronic computer tracking and more.

It is a world of trusted authority. It is a world of constant marketing. It is a world with little spider drones that enter private apartments for surveillance (similar to those dragonfly drones more recently shown in the May 4th 2013 issue of The Economist, in the article “Robodiptera”). It is a world with its efficiencies and its problems. “There are absurdities in Minority Report which reveal a great deal about the social assumptions and prejudices of its creators. The American society of half a century from now is presented as generally prosperous and content, insofar as one is able to determine, but crime and murder (and drug use) persist. Why? Is there no connection between poverty and violent behavior, or, more generally, between social reality and crime? The filmmakers are either adapting to themselves to the right-wing argument that crime is essentially causeless (rooted in Man’s fallen state) or, probably more to the point, indicating their lack of interest in its causes and a concern merely with the means of avoiding its consequences,” commented the astute film critic David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site (July 4, 2002). Yet, we know that some people commit crime due to immense deprivation and stress—and that some people commit crime simply because they can. We do not know this simply because of scientific studies: we know this because of personal experience—observation of others and, sometimes, unfortunately, ourselves.

Minority Report, which began filming in the spring of 2001, opened to the public the next year, the same year, 2002, that President Bush authorized a policy of preemptive military strikes against other countries: war based on suspicion rather than attack or evidence, beginning with an invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite mass protests. In Minority Report, Anderton the policemen is shocked to find that he is predicted to be a murderer—and, knowing how the system works, that he will be arrested and incarcerated without trial, Anderton flees. (Does the justice system identify him as a criminal, or make him a criminal?) Anderton wants to exonerate himself; and learns of the existence of Minority Report, of the dissenting report that can exist in the intuition of one of the three oracles who predict crimes—that Minority Report might clear him. Anderton finds Agatha, submerged in liquid, like an unborn child, and frees her so that she might help him. What she wants is discovery of her own mother’s killer, another esteemed policeman. Yet, Anderton is arrested near the end of Minority Report; and the prospect of his release may be heroic salvation or no more than a dream.

The film could be seen easily, perhaps too easily, as a marker of its times, though suspicion and surveillance have been part of the American government’s intelligence operations, as well as the daily practice of the justice system, for decades: “In this post-9/11 world, we have settled into the house of fear. The results: The public seems willing to accept any policy that promises greater security and safety. Americans are handing over to those in power permission to spy on people, abrogate their human rights, and even to consider a military first-strike against suspected terrorist nations. Fear is one of the most effective tools in the hands of those who want to control us,” declared Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat in their review of Minority Report upon the release of the film’s digital home version (December 17, 2002) on the web site of Spirituality and Practice. However, in the midst of one crisis we often forget those that have passed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had infiltrated the anti-war and civil rights movement, and was encouraging dissension in both; and that was learned when some academics engaged in a 1971 burglary of a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Pennsylvania that found documents delineating the spying and sabotage. The Frank Church committee in the United States Senate in the 1970s brought attention to the surveillance of American citizens and led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which prohibited spying on Americans without cause (The New Yorker, “The Talk of the Town,” January 20, 2014). The George W. Bush administration broadened the surveillance powers of the government, after September 11. President Obama inherited surveillance programs and tried—with difficulty—to make them more compliant with established laws; but intelligence agencies have consistently skirted compliance.

The film Minority Report is one of our rather recent wake-up calls, having been released in 2002. “Planning for Minority Report began three years ago and filming in March 2001. In its own peculiar fashion, this provides further proof that the Bush administration’s indefinite detention of individuals charged with no crime, the policy of making ‘preemptive arrests,’ was not merely a response to the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, but was something very much ‘in the air.’ It is a response, when viewed historically, to the increasingly untenable social contradictions of American society and the straining of these contradictions against the traditional forms of bourgeois democracy,” argued David Walsh, World Socialist Web Site (July 4, 2002).

Is that still only political paranoia? In terms of the prospect of criminality, New York magazine reported on Gilbert Valle, a policeman who engaged in internet conversations on a torture and death fantasy fetish web site about killing his wife, and was arrested and charged with conspiracy to kidnap and then convicted. Gilbert Valle had met and fallen in love with a young woman, but after she became pregnant he grew distant but they married. He seemed to recoil from being a father and withdrew into fantasy, as he had when very young. His wife became suspicious and installed spyware on the home computer and found him visiting internet sites and writing enthusiastically of killing, cooking, and eating her. However, Gilbert Valley made no real world plans for murder—no purchasing of the designated equipment—and no psychiatric report revealed Valle’s propensity for pathology. His lawyer argued he had no more than a disgusting fantasy; and that a man could not be sent to prison for his thoughts: the prosecutor and the jury disagreed, and Valle was convicted in March 2013, according to Robert Kolker, who noted “our justice system’s march toward something out of Minority Report” in the article “A Dangerous Mind,” New York, January 20-27, 2014. Apparently, there have been, also, more than two-hundred government prosecutions for terrorism based on electronic communications.

What was in the air remains in the air. Science fiction allows contemplation of human existence, personal choice, morality, technology, and the future, offering scenarios of change and possible effects. Minority Report is the kind of film that makes vivid what has been and what might be. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times, June 21, 2002, surmised: “Minority Report may be the most adult film Mr. Spielberg has made in some time. It’s about the bloody blurring of passion and violence: a compassionate noir. After the ripe, damp colors of A.I., Mr. Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, give Minority Report a cold, silvered tone. The picture looks as if it were shot on chrome, caught on the fleeing bumper of a late 70’s car. And it’s constantly in motion; Mr. Spielberg focuses on Mr. Cruise’s own ambition as if it were a gleaming hood ornament and turns that appetite for success in on itself. As Anderton, Mr. Cruise successfully shows how unfulfilled determination becomes the all-American burden. It may be one of his best performances yet.”

Surprisingly, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal (June 21, 2002) balked not at the assumptions of the film’s subject but its execution: “Has Mr. Spielberg, one of the greatest entertainers in movie history, given up on entertainment? Though his movie wraps challenging ideas and ingenious visual conceits in a futurist film-noir style, it’s pretentious, didactic and intentionally but mercilessly bleak in ways that classic noir never was. Minority Report punishes our need for pleasure.” Yet Joe Morgenstern saluted the film’s star: “Tom Cruise has given himself fully, admirably and effectively to this film, just as he did to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and the late Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.”

Before Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s filmography consisted of Endless Love (1981), The Outsiders (1983), Risky Business (1983), Top Gun (1986), The Color of Money (1986), Rain Man (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Jerry Maguire (1996), Magnolia (1999) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Cruise plays often forceful characters, and sometimes he is at his most appealing when he is under duress: his ambition, confidence, and intensity are then made significant. He has been a charismatic and popular actor, and he has been the subject of adoration, rumor and mockery. Following Minority Report, Tom Cruise appeared in The Last Samurai (2003), Collateral (2004), and Lions for Lambs (2007), but scored some of his most approving reviews for comic cameos in Tropic Thunder (2008) and Rock of Ages (2012). Cruise is able and fit in Oblivion, and has one of the most remarkable scenes in any film, when he is truly forced to face himself—and accept his lack of originality. It is a moment that seems shocking for any man, particularly one who seems heroic—or for one who is, in fact, a movie star.

Oblivion, a new science fiction film, is also, very oddly a neglected one. One sees its imagery, and one thinks of Magritte, Salvador Dali, Kubrick’s 2001, Mad Max, and 1994’s Stargate. Oblivion is an elegant, spare film that draws on some established science fiction tropes: efficient technology, spoiled nature, illusion versus reality, fated loves, movement through great expanses of time, exploitive work, tampering with human genes, and intergalactic war. It has aspects of other film genres, of mystery, horror, and war films. In Oblivion, a man, Jack (Tom Cruise), wakes after a dream featuring a woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), he is not sure he has known, but it is a persistent dream; and he goes out to do his work, checking the water-mining rig and repairing the drones, on a mostly deserted planet, before encountering what he assumes are alien enemies—that turn out to be cloaked human beings. That man’s female partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) is efficient, as Jack is, and Victoria has much less interest than he does in the world they are working on and preparing to leave. He returns to her with a small flowering plant, which she throws away. It is evidence of his unquenchable imagination, refusing total discipline. (Where are the other aspects of life, beside work and love? How oblivious can one be as long as simple routines are maintained?) Jack has a secret place to which he goes, to which he has brought other things he has found, a cabin near a lake that Victoria knows nothing about.

During one of his excursions, the man saves a woman in a life suspension pod from a drone attack: Jack notes that the drones kill humans not aliens, and the woman, Julia, is the one from his dreams, someone who seems to know more than she is saying. The woman trusts him; and consequently the rebel leader they meet trusts him: instinct feels assured by character and act and that further corroborates instinct. (If in A.I. or Artificial Intelligence, the robot boy is corroborated by a mother’s embrace, in Oblivion it is a long time but forgotten and remembered lover’s response that corroborates.) The practicality of duty had obscured deeper motivations and purposes—philosophical, spiritual, and political: that is, a convincing scenario obscured the truth in Oblivion: true self-consciousness is possible when one faces the nature of reality and one’s own response to it.

The film Oblivion is about an alien force mining the earth and manipulating men (instilling in them a false ideology, a false narrative), and that alien force kills human rebels. The alien force mimics human responses. It asks—rather lethally—one fundamental question: Are you an effective team? The team, Jack and Victoria, is allowed to work together—allowed to live—as long as that is true. Its labor is all. That is analogous to corporate or military language—authoritarian, indifferent to everything but the ultimate exploitive purpose. The technician’s colleague, in jealousy and pain, withdraws her confidence from him—which is fatal for her. It is impossible to watch the movement from faith to doubt, from security to danger, without suspense and dread. It is easy to see the mining of a country or a planet’s natural resources by an alien force and to think of the mining of oil. It is easy to observe an American’s false sense of purpose, the false ideology he has been given, and to think of a religious or political conversion that leads to betrayal of self and country. It is easy to see how technology leads to the multiplying and devaluing of human life and to think of our worst nightmares for science. Yes, films like Minority Report and Oblivion make it easy to think—to think about the things about which we are afraid.

(Article submitted January 31, 2014)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 18 issue 1 / January 2014 Film Reviews   science-fiction   steven spielberg   tom cruise