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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

Spielberg, Ethics & Ideology

The Becoming Human of the Inhuman: On Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report 1

Pascal Couté
Traduction de David Roche

Texte intégral

  • 1 Translated by David Roche.

1Underneath a deceptively smooth surface, the inhuman has been central to Spielberg’s films ever since Duel. The term can only be understood in its relation to its opposite: the human. The question “What is man?” is an old anthropological question, and this chapter does not, of course, claim to exhaust the subject entirely. Classical philosophy (up to but not including Nietzsche) does, however, provide some answers by defining one’s belonging to humanity according to five salient features. The human is, first and foremost, self-consciousness, that is the position of a subject who essentially comprehends her/himself. Subjectivity also entails awareness of an external reality: the world. The third feature is freedom, that is free will, the capacity to choose, and autonomy, in other words, the capacity to only obey oneself or, in Rousseau’s words, “obedience to the law that one has prescribed to oneself” (56). Fourth, being human means being capable of acting according to one’s values, of acting morally. Finally, a human being is a body; beyond the biological characteristics of the human species, this implies awareness of one’s own body. Conversely, the inhuman is the negation of the human, of all or some of these five features. It is that which denies man, dispossesses man of his humanity, calls into question what makes him such. Furthermore, the inhuman must be considered as the negation of man by man himself. As Nicolas Grimaldi puts it in L’Inhumain, “That the inhuman does not lie outside the human is what makes it so alarming, singular and paradoxical. Though it revolts our moral conscience and scandalizes our sense of logic, we must recognize the fact that the inhuman is a category of the human” (7).

2It is Spielberg’s sharp awareness of this “fact” that leads him to deal explicitly, in many of his films, with the inhuman: the negation of man by man through emblematic situations. Notable examples include slavery in Amistad, war in Saving Private Ryan and War Horse, the Shoah in Schindler’s List. And yet Spielberg always considers a potential—and paradoxical—humanity within the heart of even the most radical inhumanity. By studying two films belonging to very different genres (the war movie and sci-fi), I aim to show that a becoming human can develop within the inhuman, an opening towards man that determines a particular metaphysics and ethics, and that reveals the complexity of Spielberg’s humanism. Put simply, humanism is having faith in man, in other words, lucidity in the face of man’s inhumanity, while believing that the latter can always be surpassed through an assertion of the human opposing its negation. From this perspective, Spielberg’s humanism starts with a reflection on the inhuman. However, the emergence of the human is possible in the form of a negation of the negation. It is this reversal of the inhuman into the human in Spielberg’s cinema that I propose to foreground.

The Three Figures of the Inhuman

3The inhumanity depicted in Saving Private Ryan is that of war, the whole story taking place over the first days of D-day. The second scene relates the U.S. troops’ landing on Omaha Beach, the carnage lasting 23 minutes of the film’s 163-minute run-time [3:48–27:49]. Inhumanity is, first and foremost, situated in the body: the scene shows the loss of bodily integrity throughout. The audience witnesses not just dying soldiers and corpses, but the transformation of bodies into mutilated fragments that signify the loss of men. Spurts of blood, guts lolling out open bellies, crushed skulls, amputations: all the attributes of the human body are negated. The human body loses its unity and, in so doing, its reality, because it is reduced to an assortment of organs still connected in the case of the unharmed soldiers, or rotting in the case of dead and wounded soldiers. The violence of the scene resides not so much in the omnipresence of death as in the questioning of the very existence of the body. The first figure of the inhuman is thus the negation of man’s body. The inhuman is further situated on a moral level, insofar as the combat scenes depict the loss of moral frameworks, in the most ordinary sense of a morality common to all men. For instance, the American soldiers gun down for a laugh some unarmed Germans who had raised their hands in surrender, while one American declares that the Germans should be burnt alive with a flamethrower instead of shot down [23:13–24:54]. The desire to make people suffer goes far beyond the mere functional destruction of the enemy engaged in a military effort. The second figure of the inhuman is, here, barbarism as a complete loss of morality.

4Inhumanity is also a central feature of the narrative, especially in the first part of the scene when the American soldiers fail to secure the beach and are massacred. Here, the inhuman takes the shape of destructive chaos. In order to convey it, the narration is not meant to be aligned with human visual perception. Rather than offering a series of fragments (like a series of photograms), it opts for continuity. Thus, the continuity of perception is maintained, even if the outside world has become chaotic, as would be the case in an extremely violent battle. Yet the narration in this scene, especially during the first fifteen minutes, is characterized by an editing that favors fragmentation, with many brief shots from a multitude of perspectives. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski further distances us from our everyday perceptions by desaturating the colors and speeding up the film stock to at least 35 images per second, producing a jerky effect on screen that further suggests fragmentation. This scene, in effect, precludes all possibility of identification. By fragmenting the images and making them look unreal, by multiplying points of view aligned with no character, the narration dives into the chaos, becomes chaos, instead of observing it from above. Thus emerges the eye of chaos, an inhuman eye that makes it possible to see what no human eye could apprehend. The third figure of the inhuman turns out to be the negation of any form of human perception, and thus of the subject’s relation to the world.

5There is, however, one notable exception in the depiction of the battlefield as total chaos when Captain Miller is suddenly deafened by the explosion of a shell [8:25–9:42]. For a brief moment, all the sounds of the battle are suddenly diminished, in an instance of what François Jost calls primary internal auricularization (136). Miller’s point of view is further suggested through the shot/reverse shot technique with eyeline match. Resorting to a subjective point of view that is both aural and visual can initially be quite unsettling, as it is antithetical to the mode of narration used in this scene. This is undoubtedly the moment when Spielberg suggests the possibility of humanity. The eye of chaos is the inhuman made film: not only the staging of the inhuman, but the inhuman narration itself. Introducing Miller’s subjective viewpoint foreshadows the character’s special destiny. As the rest of the film will show, he is the one who allows the human to emerge in the heart of the inhuman. This brief moment of subjectivity within the cinematic chaos is an indication of the film’s trajectory, via the arc of Captain Miller, toward the emergence of the promise of humanity.

An Ethics of the Family?

6Robert R. Clewis (2008) considers the film from the perspective of what he calls “[a] Spielbergian [e]thics of the [f]amily” (the title of his article). He defines it as a category of the ethics of care in the following manner: “The good and ethical life involves demonstrating care toward family members and close friends” (133). In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller’s men are his family; they see him as a father figure. He manages to accomplish his mission of retrieving Ryan because his officers follow his orders. But deep inside, he does not “care” for Ryan, precisely because the latter does not belong to his war family, i.e., his platoon: “I don’t know anything about Ryan and I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name” [101:14]. Likewise, when they finally find Ryan, the Private refuses to be repatriated because he does not want to abandon his unit whom he now sees as his brothers [106:38–110:48]. Both Miller and Ryan abide by an ethics of the family, each man caring for his own (Miller’s platoon, Ryan’s combat unit). With this in mind, it is difficult to understand Miller’s decision to save Ryan in the final battle, even at the cost of sacrificing the lives of his men and his own. Clewis grounds his explanation in Miller’s final words, which he whispers in Ryan’s ear before dying: “James, earn this. Earn it” [155:50], that is earn the fact the men sacrificed their lives for him (138). According to an ethics of the family, the members do not need to deserve the care they are given. Moral duty demands care for our family simply because it is our own. Ryan, because he does not belong to Miller’s war family, must earn the care that was bestowed on him. What form does Ryan’s deserving such a sacrifice take? Quite simply that of leading a good life, Clewis contends (138). A simple, ordinary life in which he will pay special attention to the members of his family by being a good man, and especially a good husband, father and grandfather. Living up to Miller and his men’s sacrifice entails, for Ryan, returning the care the officer had for his men by caring for his own family his whole life long.

7One aspect of this interpretation is especially problematic, not to say debatable. Indeed, the key moment of Miller’s moral awareness occurs when Ryan refuses to be saved. Because of his refusal, the Captain decides to save Ryan at all costs right before the final battle. Miller and Sergeant Horvath talk about it the night before the combat. In short, Horvarth argues that saving Ryan would enable them to accomplish “the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole—godawful shitty mess” [112:21]. Underlying Horvath’s simple phrase is a metonymical dimension that will be discussed below. Winning a military operation is not “a decent thing”—the Americans’ positions are, at this stage, desperate; nor does it mean accomplishing heroic feats. Rather, it means saving an ordinary individual, a mere Private who doesn’t even belong to Miller’s war family. During this conversation, the question of Ryan’s having to earn the sacrifice for the rest of his life is not even mentioned. Miller utters “Earn it” at the end of the battle, but his decision to save the Private was made before. This means that, in Miller’s mind, saving Ryan represents a moral duty over and above his sacrifice and that of his men. In other words, Miller’s act has a moral significance because it involves more than merely preserving the life of an individual. Clewis errs in that his interpretation confines Miller and Ryan to particularity: the platoon for the first, the combat unit and future family for the second. On the contrary, if “it is necessary to save Ryan the soldier” (as the French title goes), it is because the latter, as we shall see, surpasses the particular to express the universal.

A Synecdoche of Humanity

8For one, Captain Miller’s mission is quasi-nonsensical. Indeed, what is the point of putting your men in danger just to find an ordinary soldier? The absurdity reaches its climax when two of Miller’s men die during the mission: why should two men die to save the life of one no worthier than they? But if the mission lacks empirical meaning, its ethical import resides in Ryan’s being a synecdoche of humanity. A mere Private, he is elevated to signify all of humanity. Thus, the mission involves saving not so much one individual among many, but humanity embodied in the Private. This moral dimension is, however, only revealed in the final part of the film. By becoming aware of it right before the final battle, Miller undergoes a moral journey. One scene is particularly revealing of Miller’s moral destiny [94:48–97:55]. Following the assault on a nest of machine guns, which ends in the death of one of Miller’s men, the mission captures a German soldier. The American soldiers want to execute him both out of revenge and because they cannot afford to take him with them. Miller, however, orders his men to let the prisoner go. His moral conscience is thus stronger than vengeful passion and calculating reason (since freeing the prisoner carries the risk he may alert nearby German forces): for Miller, a summary execution is murder, and thus morally unacceptable. His sense of moral duty is central to his destiny, which has nothing to do with facts, since his decision is a mistake. Indeed, the German soldier reappears in the final battle; freeing him ultimately entailed returning an active soldier to the German army. In other words, from an empirical perspective, that of hard fact, Miller is wrong, though he may be morally right. From a Kantian perspective, his destiny is not “phenomenal” but “noumenal,” i.e., beyond empiricism.

Bringing out the Human Agent

  • 2 Kant defines the “end in itself” as “man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himse (...)

9Saving Ryan is a morally good act, because the only meaning saving an ordinary soldier can have is, in fact, saving humanity. By accomplishing this moral act, Miller’s moral engagement makes the particular (Ryan) become universal (humanity). It is only in this context that meaning can emerge in the midst of the inhumanity of war. It should not be confused with the soldiers’ necessity to hold their position against the military attack, which only has an empirical quality and is a mere factual given in a military strategy. Miller’s decision and action have a stricly moral meaning because the point is to save all men by saving one man. What does this shift to the universal imply? What is at stake, in the midst of the negation of the human that is war, is the assertion of the presence of humanity within every man. Saving one man entails saving the humanity s/he carries and, in so doing, all of humanity. Saving Private Ryan is thus inhabited by a fundamentally Kantian outlook. For Miller’s act implies that humanity should not be considered as a group of individuals whose worth is instrumental (in this case, in a military operation), but as a Totality of “ends in themselves,” in the words of Kant in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.2 Being an end unto oneself signifies having an irreducible and absolute value as a mere end. Kant encapsulated this idea thus: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, Critique of Practical 150). This imperative emphasizes that men can, indeed, serve as means for one another, but excludes reducing humanity to such an instrumental dimension. Considering men exclusively as such ultimately comes down to denying humanity by denying the absolute value of each human being that makes of her/him not just a mere individual, but a human person.

  • 3 In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defined an Idea as a “necessary rational concept without any corre (...)

10By saving Ryan at all costs, Miller casts aside the military context where individuals are treated as means in order to adopt a moral framework that considers Ryan as a person, that is as an end. The synecdoche is thus illuminated. Ryan is not being saved for his individual qualities which are unexceptional. He is being saved as a person, as a human being. Considering Ryan as a person means considering that each human being is one and, thus, apprehending humanity as an end, as an absolute value. In this, Miller is guided by an Idea in the Kantian sense of the term. For Kant, an Idea is a concept that surpasses any possible experience, one that no sensible perception is adequate to apprehend.3 In this respect, an Idea can only have a regulatory function: it represents a pole of meaning that orients and unifies our knowledge and actions. In Saving Private Ryan, the Idea is that of humanity as a Totality of persons, as a Totality of ends, what Kant calls the “rule of ends” (Critique of Practical 157–158). The latter is, in effect, an Idea, because humans, in their empirical existence, are and always will be means and ends. However, the Idea of a Totality of men as pure ends (the “rule of ends”) is productive of meaning in its regulatory use. If the war Spielberg depicts is the locus of the loss of meaning, Miller enables the Idea of humanity that gives meaning to his action to emerge. Saving Private Ryan operates a shift from inhumanity to humanity: Miller’s moral journey reintroduces the human in the last part of the movie insofar as he makes visible the Idea of humanity beyond the inhumanity of the war.

Fig. 1 — Saving Private Ryan: the young Ryan morphs into the older Ryan standing in front of Captain Miller’s grave.

Fig. 1 — Saving Private Ryan: the young Ryan morphs into the older Ryan standing in front of Captain Miller’s grave.

11Closing a film that is a long flashback, the last scene, set in the present in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-mer, France, shows an old Ryan gazing down at Captain Miller’s grave (Fig. 1) [157:45–161:26]. He asks his wife if he is a “good man”; she says he is. Yet what does being or having been a “good man” really mean? It means, quite simply, living one’s life morally, that is in such a way as our actions may have universal value and apply for all of humanity. It is the exact same meaning as Kant’s imperative in Critique of Practical Reason: “Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation” (17). This imperative, which, for Kant, underpins any moral act, means quite simply that an action is moral if it can be universalized, if it can hold for all and, thus, does not preclude the possibility of a human community. Kant’s moral view does not impose a content (thou shalt not kill or lie, etc.) but a form: that of universal law. Neither Miller nor Ryan evokes a content but a mere form: merit for Miller, the good life for the former Private. These are forms of action that can apply for all, in the same manner as Ryan represents all of humanity. What makes Kantian morality difficult is that, since no content is provided, one must always ask oneself whether one’s action is liable to have universal value. That is the gist of the question the old Ryan asks. He is not standing in front of Miller’s grave to put forward an exemplary existence that honors his sacrifice. He has come to question himself at the close of his life: have I led a moral life? Can my actions have value for everyone, as Miller taught me by saving me? With its focus on the possibility of humanity considered from a moral point of view, Saving Private Ryan could have been entitled Saving the Human Soul. The salvation of a human soul requires respect for an absolute imperative, implying that the universal must reveal and impose itself as a law in each particular act.

A Society of Control

  • 4 Sébastien Lefait focuses on the way “pre-surveillance turns to post-surveillance” in Minority Repor (...)
  • 5 As Jean-Marc Lalanne has noted, “the eye is not so much the organ which sees as that which makes it (...)
  • 6 Foucault analyzes the panopticon as the paradigm of disciplinary societies in Part 3, Chapter III ( (...)
  • 7 Deleuze says of societies of control: “what matters is not the boundary but the computer which dete (...)

12While Saving Private Ryan depicted the inhumanity of war, Minority Report, a sci-fi film based on Philip K. Dick’s story of the same name, presents a near-future society (2054) in which human identity and freedom are denied. The Precogs, whose humanity is far from certain, witness the journey of one of their kind, in which the human will once again emerge and assert itself in a dehumanizing context. The society portrayed in the film is one of control, where surveillance is the founding principle, a situation made possible by the fact that the eyes of each individual are scanned so as to file them.4 Beyond the filing process, what is really at stake is the implementation of a system of absolute visibility: in this environment (commercials, control in the subway, the press, etc.), any individual can be seen at any given moment;5 each gesture and each act is almost constantly being watched. This society does not correspond to the model of the panopticon, as invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and theorized by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. For even if the panopticon can be employed at various levels of society (prisons, hospitals, asylums, factories, schools), it is above all a centralized structure. For Foucault, the panopticon represents the paradigm of the disciplinary societies that characterized the 18th and 19th centuries.6 In Minority Report, however, visibility is not centralized but distributed, and is constantly exerted on the whole environment. In Pourparlers, Gilles Deleuze studies the difference between disciplinary societies and societies of control. While disciplinary societies are founded on imprisoning structures where surveillance is centralized, societies of control function like open environments where surveillance is decentralized and continuous. In a society of control, visibility exerts itself permanently on every level of the social field, in a truly molecular fashion.7 Each individual is constantly exposed to a form of potential surveillance. No doubt, each can come and go as s/he pleases, but always while being controlled, so that individuals who appear free are actually denied their own space. In a society which imposes an absolute, molecular visibility, every individual is liable to be watched at any time, leaving no room for her/his intimacy and for the autonomy that should be her/his. Thus, in Minority Report, the social structure is highly inhuman because it is founded on the negation of individual freedom. By banning human freedom, it represents a veritable negation of humanity.

Refusing Possibilities and Negating Choices

  • 8 The names recall three famous writers of detective fiction: Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett an (...)

13The Precrime system, a hyperbolic allegory of a society of control, is based on the fact that the Precogs’ (Arthur’s, Dashiell’s and especially Agatha’s8) premonitions are considered to be foolproof, meaning that the crime will happen if nothing is done. Basing their information on these premonitions, the Precrime intervention unit locates future crimes to prevent them. The essential point is that the person is considered to be a criminal even though s/he is arrested, tried and convicted before the crime has been committed. This system takes the control that governs the society depicted in Minority Report even further. It focuses not on present reality but on the future. In fact, Precrime considers the future to be just as visible as the present. The images sent by the Precogs expand the field of visilibity as a controlling structure to include what is to come. Thus, Precrime fulfills a fantasy of absolute control that is not only seeing what is but what will be. The future, like the present, is controlled on a molecular level because the “precrimes” are individuated: the names of the victims and criminals are carved in inimitable wooden balls, making each one unique. The Precrime unit is a perfect match for the society depicted in Minority Report, representing its epitome insofar as surveillance is taken beyond the limits of the real and the possible. And this is exactly what Precrime renders impossible. In this system, the future is one, since it is nothing more than what the Precogs foresee. It is, therefore, the contingency of the future that is called into question. Indeed, what characterizes the future is that it escapes necessity; it is unforeseeable when it comes to human actions, unlike physical and chemical phenomena which can be predicted by the laws of science. In the human world, there are several futures, several possibilities, and it is impossible to predict which one will come true. The possible is characterized by the fact that it possesses no existence, and only when it becomes present, that is to say real, does it becomes determined and intangible. The future of mankind is strictly contingent and, in this respect, indeterminate and unpredictable; it is a radically open field of possibilities. Yet it is this very contingency that is denied, in Minority Report, since the future is thought to be fully determinable thanks to the Precogs. Perhaps their predictions concern only future crimes and not the whole future. However, this does not alter the founding principle of Precrime, according to which the future ceases to be indeterminate and becomes wholly predictable. As Dean A. Kowalski puts it, “Spielberg thus presents Precrime as the most intrusive and oppressive of governmental surveillance tactics” (239).

14Precrime, like the society it is an integral part of, is entirely based on the negation of freedom of choice. As the Precogs’ premonitions turn the future into something necessary, any individual identified as a future criminal is subjected to this necessity. In other words, a human being who is designated by these premonitory images is not designated as a potential criminal but as a real one even though s/he has committed no crime. Freedom as the capacity to choose implies that each person faces several possibilities and has the capacity to opt for one or the other. Making a decision is the moment when the human being selects a possibility by excluding others, thereby making it an actual action. Thus, the power to choose presupposes the plurality of possibilities among which one will be privileged during the decision. Precrime, on the other hand, reduces the individual pinpointed by the premonitions to a unique possibility: the one s/he must, by necessity, commit. If there is only one possibility, then there are ultimately no possibilities. All that remains is the strict rule of necessity. Precrime assumes that, from the moment an individual has been identified by the Precogs, s/he loses ipso facto the capacity to choose anything other than what they have predicted. The premonition imprisons the human being in an absolute determination that radically denies any capacity to choose, any free will and thus any humanity.

Of Visions and Gazes

15Minority Report relates how a human being can reclaim his or her humanity through the journey of Agatha, the Precog with super-powers. Although they are humans suffering from brain damage, the Precogs, and Agatha especially, have been utterly dehumanized by Precrime. This dehumanization centers on the negation of the gaze in favor of vision. Human perception is typified by the gaze, which is both the means by which the world is apprehended and an expression of interiority. The gaze thus reveals personal identity, self-consciousness and awareness of the world, and signifies, in this respect, humanity. Beyond their generic differences, the common denominator between Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report is that, while Captain Miller’s subjective point of view at Omaha Beach marks the return of the human within the most radical inhumanity, the denial of the Precogs’ gazes, on the other hand, comes down to denying their humanity a contrario. In both films, it is always through the gaze that the human emerges.

16In Minority Report, the Precogs’ premonitions are geared towards the future; they are discontinuous, nonchronological, enigmatic, devoid of the world’s colors. As such, they do not originate from the gaze, but are, instead, visions that appear as breaks from reality, utterly devoid of consciousness. The Precogs are completely instrumentalized by Precrime and reduced to the state of being a mere means in the service of the system. Agatha herself is the incarnation of the negation of humanity. For Precrime, she is just an eye, the power of vision. In this respect, she is superhuman because her perception surpasses man’s. However, she is also infrahuman: deprived of her freedom, of all relationship to the world and others. As a seer, Agatha is cut off from humanity. Unlike the other Precogs whose visions are simply revelations of future crimes, Agatha’s vision has an infinitely broader range. She is essentially the revelation of truth: in the narrative, the revelation is that of Agatha’s mother Anne Lively. Thus, unlike the other Precogs, she is not trapped in the future because she can also see the past (her mother’s murder) and the present, for instance when she comments on the landscape she and Anderton are traveling through: “It’s beautiful” [114:02]. Agatha, whose vision encompasses all three aspects of time, is the absolute seer, the absolute eye. It is in this respect that she is inhuman, because her power of vision is precisely what forbids the gaze, that is humanity’s relationship to the world and itself, the consciousness of both exteriority and inner life. Agatha’s quest is one of self-consciousness: to escape vision, (re)gain the gaze and, in so doing, the identity and freedom that characterizes humanity.

17The progression from vision to gaze is foregrounded through the use of a question Agatha asks Anderton five times: “Can you see?”. The first occurs when Agatha is in “the temple,” the place where the Precogs are imprisoned and have their visions, and she clutches Anderton while picturing images of her mother’s murder [28:45]. At this stage, Anderton cannot understand the meaning of these images, because he knows nothing of the murder. The second instance resembles the first, but this time Anderton knows Anne Lively was probably murdered, though he is ignorant of both the killer’s identity and the fact that the victim is actually Agatha’s mother [86:15]. Anderton understands the meaning of the question a few minutes later after kidnapping Agatha [94:28]; confronted with images of Anne Lively drowning, Anderton says to Agatha: “You want me to see who murdered Anne Lively.” A bond is thus established between the two protagonists. Freeing Agatha from a system that denies humanity and placing her in a human environment endows the question “Can you see?” with new meaning, even if it remains the same question. A human relationship has been established through this act of communication, even in reduced form, paving the way for Agatha’s eventual humanization. Later in the film, while walking through a luxurious natural environment, Agatha repeats the question, this time adding: “It’s beautiful.” The status of the question is ambivalent: Agatha’s repeating it suggests that she remains caught up in vision, but at the same time, she relates to the world by making an aesthetic evaluation. Vision has made way for the gaze, thereby establishing a relation to, and an awareness of, the world. Agatha’s humanization continues till it is fulfilled in the question’s fifth and final occurrence.

18It takes place a bit later when Agatha and Anderton are in his ex-wife Lara’s house [119:13]. Agatha tells Anderton and Lara what their son, who disappeared as a child, could have become. Then she asks: “Can you see?” and adds: “She wanted to find her little girl.” The “little girl” is none other than Agatha and the “she” refers to Anne Lively, who turns out to be Agatha’s mother. A correspondence is, therefore, established between the lost child Sean and Agatha who was taken from her mother. Two traumatic events are revealed here: Agatha’s, and Anderton and Lara’s. The repetition of the images of her mother’s death are necessary for Agatha to become human. However, the last utterance of the question indicates a shift from traumatic images to liberating words: she achieves self-consciousness by saying what she has perceived in these visions, which have never ceased to destroy her. Her past emerges yet again, this time not as images, but as words confided to others. This founding trauma becomes, in the utterance, conscious, so that instead of lethal images bursting forth enigmatically, it becomes a memory within a subjectivity who knows her past and frees herself of it. The repetition of “Can you see?” thus expresses the process of humanization. The first three involve Anne Lively’s death and ultimately establish a relationship based on communication. The fourth establishes a relation to the world through dazzled contemplation of it. And the last one is release from a destructive trauma that allows access to consciousness, and thus humanity. Agatha’s humanization is liberation from both Precrime and her own trauma; it is also apprehension of the world, the other and herself. Her journey leads, then, to freedom and self-consciousness. The final images of the film show the three Precogs living in a house far away from society, luxuriating in the beauty of nature [136:37–139:20] (Fig. 2). Agatha is, quite appropriately, shown reading a book, as reading involves not vision but the gaze. The Precogs’ humanization thus implies escaping vision to access the gaze.

Fig. 2 — Minority Report: Agatha and the other Precogs living on the margins of society.

Fig. 2 — Minority Report: Agatha and the other Precogs living on the margins of society.


19Saving Private Ryan presents a threefold negation of the human, involving the body, one’s moral view and perception, and thus the subject’s relation to the world. However, it is at the very heart of the inhuman that the possibility of the human (re)emerges. Saving Ryan, who represents a synecdoche of humanity, surpasses the individual to reach the universality of mankind. The film offers a glimpse of the possibility of a Totality of men as an absolute value, a value as an end unto itself, what Kant calls “the rule of ends.” The latter cannot, however, be fulfilled because, empirically, man is always both a means and an end, so that the rule of ends functions as a sort of regulatory horizon, like a Kantian Idea. As such, it allows moral action, in the here and now, to stand for universal law, so that, in this film, the human is not a being but an infinite, continuous construction. This is by no means the case in Minority Report. The society of control and the Precrime system are represented as negations of human freedom, free will and autonomy. The dark portrayal of humans reduced to the status of means is reinforced by the figure of the Precog, who is denied self-consciousness and consciousness of the world. However, over the course of her journey, Agatha progressively attains humanity through such consciousness, though at a price. By freeing herself of Precrime and her own trauma, she becomes fully human.

20These films reveal that, for Spielberg, the human can be born of the inhuman through two radically distinct routes: that of an absolute horizon or that of effective reality. The filmmaker does not opt between the two, neither of which appears better than the other. Both, however, do testify to a sincere belief in man and represent statements concerning the possibility of existing as a human being. Spielberg is thus firmly inscribed in the humanist tradition. But this faith is also implacably lucid: it is the figure of the inhuman that haunts the world, so that, paradoxically, the human can only be constructed through its opposite. The human thus remains possible as a horizon or a being. In spite of all that opposes it, the human exists, either in the form of a regulatory ideal or in that of an actual occurrence. The role of the gaze, whether it be Miller’s or Agatha’s, is, in this respect, central. The Captain’s point of view is reproduced, albeit briefly, in the midst of a battle that is precisely annihilating all subjectivity, and it is this that announces his moral destiny. In Minority Report, freedom from a purely dehumanizing vision is what enables, yet again, the emergence of the gaze. What Spielberg’s humanism teaches us, both cinematographically and philosophically, is that there is no humanity without subjectivity, that is without awareness of the self and the world. Even in the midst of horror and death, of the total instrumentalization of all that is human, it is through the gaze that the human remains possible, regardless of the path s/he follows.


Clewis, Robert R. “A Spielbergian Ethics of the Family in Saving Private Ryan and The Color Purple.” Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Book. Ed. Dean A. Kowalski. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2008, 129–149.

Deleuze, Gilles. Pourparlers. Paris: Minuit, 1990.

Dick, Philip K. “The Minority Report.” The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories. New York: Kensington, 2002, 71–102.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991 [1975].

Gaudreault, André et François Jost. Le Récit cinématographique: Cinéma et récit-II. Paris: Nathan, 1990.

Grimaldi, Nicolas. L’Inhumain. Paris: PUF, 2011.

Kant, Emmanuel. Critique de la raison pure. Paris: PUF, 1967 [1781].

Kant, Emmanuel. Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics. Trans. T.K. Abbott. London: Longmans Green, 1889 [1781–1788].

Kowalski, Dean A. “Minority Report, Molinism, and the Viability of Precrime.” Steven Spielberg and Philosophy. Ed. Dean A. Kowalski. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2008, 227–247.

Lalanne, Jean-Marc. “Juridiction des images: Minority Report.” Cahiers du cinéma 572 (October 2002): 75–77.

Lefait, Sébastien. Surveillance on Screen: Monitoring Contemporary Film and Television Programs. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013.

Minority Report. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2003.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Du Contrat social. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966 [1762].

Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 2000.


1 Translated by David Roche.

2 Kant defines the “end in itself” as “man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end” (translated by T.K. Abbott).

3 In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defined an Idea as a “necessary rational concept without any corresponding object as far as the senses are concerned” (157–158, translated by Roche).

4 Sébastien Lefait focuses on the way “pre-surveillance turns to post-surveillance” in Minority Report (68).

5 As Jean-Marc Lalanne has noted, “the eye is not so much the organ which sees as that which makes it possible to be seen continuously” (75).

6 Foucault analyzes the panopticon as the paradigm of disciplinary societies in Part 3, Chapter III (228–264); he describes Bentham’s panopticon from pages 233 to 235.

7 Deleuze says of societies of control: “what matters is not the boundary but the computer which determines the position of each person” (246, translated by Roche). The last chapter of Pourparlers, “Politique,” is entirely comprised of analyses of control, especially the text “Post-Scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle.”

8 The names recall three famous writers of detective fiction: Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — Saving Private Ryan: the young Ryan morphs into the older Ryan standing in front of Captain Miller’s grave.
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Fichier image/jpeg, 159k
Titre Fig. 2 — Minority Report: Agatha and the other Precogs living on the margins of society.
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Université de Caen Normandie.

Pascal Couté, PhD. and professeur agrégé in Philosophy, teaches cinema and aesthetics in the Performing Arts department at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie. He defended his dissertation entitled “Les figures de l’humain et de l’inhumain dans le cinéma de Steven Spielberg” in 2012. He has co-written the book Formes et obsessions du cinéma américain contemporain (with Vincent Amiel, Klincksieck Études, 2003) and has published articles on David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Cimino, Bruce Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Tourneur and Terrence Malick in various journals (Trafic, Éclipses, CinémaAction, Double Jeu).

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