You Can Choose: On Minority Report and Mercy

Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002) | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Ask a film buff what the theme of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is, and you’ll likely get one of two answers.1

From the more philosophically inclined, you might prompt a treatise on the age-old question of free will versus determinism: Do we have control over our destiny? Once we set an event in motion, do we have the power to stop it? Though the film merely skirts the compatibility debate (can free will and predestination coexist?), its foundational concept of PreCrime is centered on the notion that thoughts, actions, and consequences spring into being simultaneously—if, with enough conviction, you decide to commit murder, you have already connected the dots between that decision and the ultimate result. Only an outside presence, having been alerted to the decision, can intercede on your behalf: you can’t draw a new line, but someone else can break the one you’ve laid down. 

In a clever bit of early pseudoscientific exposition, PreCrime’s top cop John Anderton (Tom Cruise) explains the premise to skeptical federal agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) by rolling a ball across and off the desk separating the two men. Witwer catches it before it hits the ground, prompting Anderton to ask why he caught it. Witwer replies that the ball was going to fall, which Anderton knows is the only reasonable answer; Witwer has stepped into a linguistic trap, and Anderton closes the metaphor of the falling ball by noting that “the fact [Witwer] prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.” Witwer—and by extension, the audience—has to acknowledge the play, even if he doesn’t really buy it. 

Moving from the abstract to the (slightly) more concrete, the other prominent read on Minority Report has much to do with the moment in which it was released. Though the film was in production before the events of September 11, 2001 (and the Philip K. Dick novella that loosely inspired it was published in 1956), by the time Minority Report debuted in the summer of 2002, we were living in a drastically different world. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the United States Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act,2 granting law enforcement agencies vastly expanded capabilities to surveil American citizens and detain individuals suspected of potential terrorist activities—even if they haven’t been charged with a crime. Controversy abounded, but as a country we still live with the impact of the PATRIOT Act today.

In that regard it’s hard to watch Minority Report and not see it in a specifically post-9/11 dystopian light: not only does the PreCrime system allow for the most invasive type of surveillance imaginable—into your thoughts and your possible future—but those arrested are then indefinitely detained in a state of catatonic limbo, all for crimes they at worst considered committing. The film poses a question that all democratic societies must consider and reconsider as they grow and evolve: how much of our freedom are we willing to sacrifice in exchange for the idea of security? 

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Minority Report | 20th Century Fox

I’ve seen Minority Report countless times over the past 18 years. From a purely technical standpoint, I count it among the best films Spielberg has made—Cruise has arguably never been better cast (the sheer number of times he’s told he has to run is staggering), setpieces are staged with enough winking visual comedy to offset the grimness of the narrative, and frequent collaborators Janusz Kamiński (cinematographer) and John Williams (composer) craft a fittingly oppressive visual and auditory landscape. Not only that, but the film is both smarter and more empathetic than your average sci-fi actioner, able to entertain you, move you, and force you (at least briefly) into a state of moral introspection. 

As such, the amount of time I’ve spent watching Minority Report roughly correlates with the amount of additional time I’ve spent thinking about Minority Report, the bulk of which was spent wrestling with those two big ideas discussed above—that is, until I became a prosecutor, and the film’s context irrevocably changed. 

I went to law school because I wanted to help people. That may sound cliché, or naive, or both, but at the time it made sense. My previous plan had been to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist, but an 11th-hour crisis of faith put me on the path towards the law instead, the hope being that the variety of branching avenues provided by the legal field would enable me to find a worthwhile pursuit. 

And, as long as you could ignore the temptation of a law firm, public interest opportunities were plentiful. Once I made it past that dreaded first year, the majority of my coursework involved either human rights law or criminal law, making for plenty of idealism to go around. As time went on, I naturally gravitated towards the latter for two reasons. First, I was caught up in the thrill of trial work—as someone who once wished they could be an actor, the rush of the performative aspects was hard to shake. Second, and sometimes at odds with the former, my doe-eyed law student self was enamored of the notion of justice. As a prosecutor, I thought, I would have the ability to fight for the right outcome every time; that magical word discretion meant I could bring every case to its just conclusion. I knew the American criminal justice system was filled with inequities, but I figured I could work to fix these problems from the inside—an idea that, while not entirely misguided, was much more complicated than I imagined. Naivety rears its head again. 

I spent three years as a line prosecutor in a district attorney’s office, working primarily alongside people who had the same lofty goals as I did: seek the truth and obtain the most just outcome. I’d like to think that for the most part we did our best; I know that we sometimes fell short. Much as we might wish it were, law is far from an exact science—it’s ugly and messy and relies significantly on the human element, for better or for worse. No matter how much good you try to do, there’s often something standing in your way.

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Minority Report | 20th Century Fox

The American criminal justice system is built on a foundation of three core concepts: right to trial, presumption of innocence, and burden of proof. 

The right to trial is the broadest of the three, codified in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment: 

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence. 

This paints a fairly accurate picture of today’s system in its most general form. When accused of a crime, you have a right to an attorney who will represent you, including during a trial at which you will have the opportunity to confront (i.e. cross-examine) those who bear witness against you. It’s a process that the world of Minority Report appears to have mostly dispensed with—there are no trials and no attorneys, just the police and a small, carved wooden ball that proclaims your guilt. PreCrime nods towards oversight, but it’s a mere formality: two judicial witnesses who confirm the names written on the orbs. 

Presumption of innocence—outlined in Coffin v. United States (1895), most know it by the adage “innocent until proven guilty”—has also clearly fallen by the wayside in the America of 2054. As soon as the precogs (three near-vegatative humans with the ability to see the future, as long as that future is sufficiently violent) visualize the murder you may commit, your guilt is a certainty. No more proof is needed because there is no more proof: jetpack-wearing S.W.A.T. teams will have stopped you before you could follow through—or before you could choose not to. 

Following directly from the presumption of innocence is the burden of proof: at what point is the presumption overridden? At what point do the scales tip from innocent to guilty? In re Winship (1970) tells us that guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” New York’s criminal jury instructions (what a judge provides a jury in order to legally guide their deliberations) define reasonable doubt like so: 

A reasonable doubt is an honest doubt of the defendant’s guilt for which a reason exists based upon the nature and quality of the evidence. It is an actual doubt, not an imaginary doubt. It is a doubt that a reasonable person, acting in a matter of this importance, would be likely to entertain because of the evidence that was presented or because of the lack of convincing evidence. 

Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you so firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt that you have no reasonable doubt of the

existence of any element of the crime or of the defendant’s identity as the person who committed the crime. 

This is where the PreCrime system breaks down. The decision to throw away the right to trial and the presumption of innocence is predicated on the idea that, for each murder the precogs envision, there is no reasonable doubt that it will happen. But, as John Anderton learns, the precogs sometimes produce a minority report: a second potential future, seen by one of the three oracles, the very existence of which erodes the reliability of the initial prediction. If that isn’t reasonable doubt, I don’t know what is. 

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In the academic sense, the minority report could stand for reasonable doubt—the hole in the case large enough to prevent a conviction, bolstering the presumption of innocence just enough for us to feel comfortable with the societal trade-offs we’ve made. But for me, on a professional and personal level, it began to represent much more. 

As a prosecutor I dealt with two types of evidence: direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence is the cleaner sort, the kind that leaves less room for doubt. If Agatha the precog (Samantha Morton) sat in a courtroom and said “I saw Captain John Anderton shoot a man identified as Leo Crow,” that’s a smoking gun-level piece of evidence. Circumstantial evidence is trickier, and you need a lot more of it—Anderton’s fingerprints in the room would be circumstantial, as would surveillance footage of him entering the hotel. No one piece of evidence will make your case, and in all likelihood you’re dealing with significantly more circumstantial pieces than direct corroboration. 

But here’s the other thing about evidence: it’s inherently imperfect. Humans are fallible, as are the systems we create. If you could pick any pieces of evidence to prove a case, think about what those might be. A witness to the crime? I’ve seen many struggle to identify the supposed perpetrator. Video surveillance? I’ve watched hours of blurry footage where faces are nearly indiscernible. A corroborating witness? I’ve spoken to those who can’t remember the date or time the event happened. You quickly learn that no case is open and shut, no matter how strong your evidence. That’s why you minimize the possibility of reasonable doubt through evidentiary volume; in an ideal world, if the defendant is truly guilty then the sheer weight of the facts will eventually tip the balance. 

But you can never, to 100% statistical certainty, be sure. Spielberg’s film positions the minority report as proof that the future is ultimately unknowable, but if the fallibility of memory and technology in the evidentiary realm is any indication, that unknowability extends to the past and the present as well. Yes, it’s a sliding scale: of course we can look on events that have happened or that are currently happening with far more clarity than those that have yet to take place. Despite the examples above, witnesses’ memories are often reliable and video footage can be as clear as day. But even under the best of circumstances, absolute certainty as to the particulars of an incident is unattainable, even if practically speaking you’re as sure as you can reasonably expect to be. There’s simply no situation where we can definitively claim the nonexistence of a minority report. Somehow, somewhere, it could be lurking.

I don’t say this to cast aspersions on prosecutors as a whole, or to suggest that our prisons are filled (from a proportional perspective) with factually innocent individuals—neither sentiment would fairly reflect the state of affairs. However, if you follow the news even tangentially you likely know that there are prosecutors who don’t act ethically, and there are people in prison who at best didn’t get a fair trial and at worst are indeed innocent; those numbers may be relatively low, but as a society we really shouldn’t feel comfortable with anything higher than zero. The American legal system has plenty of problems, most prominently in regards to (1) what we criminalize, (2) how harshly we punish offenders, and (3) who numbers 1 and 2 disproportionately affect. Criminal justice reform is a necessity, not a desire, and I think you’ll find willing participants across the board—including the prosecutors who in most cases are striving for the most just outcome but find themselves hamstrung by laws and bureaucracy that can erase humaneness from the equation. 

But despite the possibility of the minority report—the potential, however infinitesimal it might be, that in any given case we get the facts wrong—some sort of societal accountability is important as well. Is our country going to collapse if crimes of poverty are treated with more leniency? I sincerely doubt it. But there are unfortunately a (relatively small) percentage of individuals who are willing and capable of committing much more violent, destructive, and malicious acts. Is it reasonable to leave that unchecked? Given the potential severity of the harm, that’s a much tougher argument to make. 

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Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton in Minority Report (2002)

If we know that we can never be absolutely certain of anything, and we know that society has chosen to live with a certain level of potential error in exchange for public safety—a margin that is unlikely to ever be completely eliminated, especially with the increased level of surveillance we have also tacitly accepted—what’s the solution? How do we reconcile these matters? Turns out Minority Report has an answer for that as well: mercy. 

In a climactic scene, Anderton finally confronts a man he believes to be Leo Crow, an individual the precogs have predicted Anderton will murder at this precise moment. Anderton had never met the man before, but based on the accumulated evidence, Crow abducted and eventually murdered Anderton’s young son years ago. Now that he understands his own motivation, Anderton points his gun at Crow and prepares to pull the trigger. Agatha is screaming in the corner, telling Anderton that he still has a choice, that he can change his destiny despite what was foretold. 

And he does. Anderton puts down the gun and begins to read Crow his rights. It’s the lynchpin of the narrative, the moment that truly exposes the flaw in the PreCrime system. But it’s much more than that. It’s a moment that epitomizes the human capacity for empathy. Anderton is staring down the barrel at a man whom he believes committed the most heinous of crimes. If this was a Liam Neeson revenge thriller I’m not sure we’d bat an eye if he exacted vengeance. But Anderton doesn’t pull the trigger. He shows mercy. 

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Some might say that I simply didn’t have the stomach for the work, but I like to think that my driving principle in my years as a prosecutor—few though they may have been, in the grand scheme of things—was, in fact, mercy. Even in the worst circumstances, there’s almost always a mitigating factor, a reason to try and find a more compassionate outcome. But for there to be change, that sensibility has to permeate through the entire system. We can choose to show mercy in how the laws are written, a recognition of what truly constitutes a crime (and at what level of severity) and the ability to treat each instance in its own context. We can choose to show mercy in the cases prosecutors move forward with and the manners in which those cases are resolved. We can choose to show mercy in how we consider punishment; our carceral system is fundamentally broken, but we have the opportunity to reshape it from a state of inherent retribution into one of true rehabilitation. We can—and we should—choose to show mercy because deep down every one of us knows that we are just as capable of making a mistake as anyone else. 

We have a moral obligation to be merciful. Not just because it’s the humane thing to do (though it almost always is, even in the face of atrocity), but because of the minority report. In any given instance we may not see it—and in fact, it may not even exist—but we can never truly know. And let’s say that minority report does surface, today, tomorrow, or 10 years from now; suddenly, the reasonable doubt appears. Any damage you’ve already done, you can’t undo. But you can be preemptive and you can minimize it. 

Justice is not incompatible with mercy. You can always choose.

  1. This of course is an assumption about the plurality; Minority Report has spawned brilliant thematic analysis outside these domains, including Emmy Potter’s dissection of the film’s notions of gender and psychology.
  2. As Congress has never met an acronym they couldn’t force, USA PATRIOT stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”