Arts & Entertainment
What if There Were No Free Will?
The Adjustment Bureau Poses Questions About Fate, Chance and Providence
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Register Film Critic
March 13-26, 2011 Issue | Posted 3/4/11 at 12:48 PM
Science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s later work was marked by Gnostic tendencies, and The Adjustment Bureau, loosely inspired by Dick’s 1954 short story “The Adjustment Team” could easily have been another Gnostic-colored Hollywood parable akin to The Matrix and The Truman Show. In these movies, the hero slowly awakens to the realization that the known world is a facade engineered by a malevolent false creator, and ultimately throws off his shackles, rebelling against the false authority and achieving freedom from the constraints of this world.
Instead, writer-director George Nolfi, a philosophy major who studied at Princeton and Oxford, uses Dick’s fantasy conceit of a team of superhuman agents intervening in human affairs to noodle concepts of fate, free will, chance, Providence and theodicy in a tale of star-crossed lovers appealingly played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Part Hollywood romance, part paranoia thriller, The Adjustment Bureau is an enjoyable romp in large part on the strength of Damon and Blunt’s likability and chemistry — qualities notably absent in recent star vehicles like The Tourist and Knight and Day.
Damon plays David Norris, a youthful U.S. senator who we find early in the film suffering a setback due to impulsively cheeky bad behavior. Blunt is Elise, whom David improbably meets while polishing his concession speech in the men’s room at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Elise initially comes off as what critic Nathan Rabin labeled a “manic pixie dream girl” — i.e., a bubbly, flirty young thing who exists solely to awaken the hero to life’s mysteries and adventures — but becomes something more interesting as the film goes on.
In fact, from Elise’s point of view, it’s David who’s the “manic pixie dream boy,” mysteriously popping in and out of her life, tantalizing her with the possibility of starry-eyed romantic fulfillment before vanishing and leaving her contemplating sensible, level-headed life decisions that would be perfectly rewarding if it weren’t for the lingering hope for something more.
What keeps pushing David and Elise apart — despite the strong connection they feel, almost as if they were made for each other — is the Adjustment Bureau, a grimly efficient force of covert agents in fedoras (notably including Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp) whose prime directive is to facilitate the Plan. The Plan dictates the life path of everyone on earth, particularly influential people like Norris whose actions have the most impact on the broader goals of the bureau — goals that, it must be said, benefit all mankind, even if the Agents occasionally ride roughshod over human freedom and individual happiness.
Usually their “adjustments” are mechanical: One day, the theory goes, you spill your coffee and miss your bus, and your day takes a completely different path that changes the whole course of your life. Do our lives really hinge on such vagaries? Who can doubt it?
Because we believe that our lives are meaningful, we resist the notion that the stuff of which they are made is contingent on blind chance. Fate, Providence, predestination — somehow there is a meaningful pattern in which the paths of our lives make sense.
The Adjustment Bureau plays with all these ideas, and the indeterminacy of its approach, which some might find indecisive or woolly-minded, seems to me the secret of the film’s success. Instead of spelling out the answers, Nolfi raises the questions, inviting viewers to contemplate the possibilities in light of their own beliefs or doubts.
The Adjustment Bureau obviously suggests religious themes. The Agents overtly resemble the angelic protagonists of Wings of Desire — as well as the Agents of The Matrix; are they angels, and, if so, how benevolent are they? One of them tells David that they’ve been called angels, but they’re “more like case workers.”
More importantly, is the mysterious Chairman, the author of the Plan, God? He (or she) is obviously a God figure, though it might be possible to interpret him (or her) as a powerful intelligence akin to, variously, the planetary oyeresu spirits of C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, the mysterious alien benefactors of humanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or a Gnostic demiurge figure, a cosmic equivalent to The Truman Show’s Christof.
Are the Chairman and the Plan benevolent or oppressive? If the latter, then clearly on some level we have a Gnostic parable — and for much of the film there seems to be a case for this reading. The Agents are broadly concerned with mankind’s development and progress, but neither they nor the Plan seems much concerned with the good of individual men and women.
If the Plan as the Agents know it is equivalent to God’s will, then the divinity of this film is like Alexander Pope’s “first Almighty Cause” who “acts not by partial but by general laws.” This is a providence stripped of omniscience and omnibenevolence — a managerial god (as Lewis argues in Prayer: Letters to Malcolm) who may be wiser than everyone else but falls infinitely short of the Absolute of Christian belief and even Greek philosophy.
Nolfi, though, runs interference on this hypothesis, suggesting that even the Agents’ perspectives are limited, some more than others, and the Plan as they know it may or may not converge with the Chairman’s ultimate intentions. There are repeated suggestions that, as David spends most of the film chafing at the restrictions of the Plan and pushing back against the Agents determined to keep him from Elise, the Chairman may secretly be on David’s side, not the Agents’. Why did David catch the bus he was meant to miss? Why did the Agents fail to prevent him? They think it was chance, but the movie suggests another possibility.
“This can’t be wrong,” David says at one point, meaning his desire to be with Elise. David may be willing to defy the Plan, but some concept of right and wrong is still in view; his position is not “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” It’s also worth noting that David does note in passing that it would be different if Elise were married; that feeling of romantic destiny, that two people were “meant to be” together, has often not scrupled at marital obstacles and has been used to justify adultery, abandonment and divorce.
In the end, the film’s biggest theological limitation is that the Chairman’s most important attribute, for the purposes of the story at least, is whatever he (or she) thinks of David and Elise’s love. The Chairman may be an agent of or an obstacle to human happiness; there is no indication that he might be the source and goal of human happiness — of all possible happiness of all possible creatures in all possible universes.
Like Damon’s recent Hereafter, which was consumed with the question of an afterlife but ignored the question of God pretty much completely, The Adjustment Bureau asks secondary questions — while leaving the biggest question of all off the radar. I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau a lot more than Hereafter, though. In principle, I’d like to watch both movies again and think about them some more — but, practically speaking, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like watching Hereafter again, which is not how I feel about The Adjustment Bureau.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
He also blogs at NCRegister.com.
CONTENT ADVISORY: A car crash and some brief roughness; limited sensuality, including a nonmarital bedroom scene (nothing explicit); some language, including a curse and one obscenity; theological ambiguities. Mature viewing.
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