Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

Do you control your own destiny? That’s the not-so-small question taken up in The Adjustment Bureau, a well-executed fantasy/thriller currently in theaters. I finally managed to catch a showing yesterday, and I’m not sorry I did: the movie offers plenty to think about.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The studio write-up for the film nicely summarizes the basic plot:

Matt Damon stars…as a man who glimpses the future Fate has planned for him and realizes he wants something else. To get it, he must pursue the only woman he’s ever loved across, under and through the streets of modern-day New York. On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris (Matt Damon) meets beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt)-a woman like none he’s ever known. But just as he realizes he’s falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he is up against the agents of Fate itself-the men of The Adjustment Bureau-who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. In the face of overwhelming odds, he must either let her go and accept a predetermined path…or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her.

The film itself is competently executed, boasting genuine chemistry between Damon and Blunt as well as a host of quality supporting performances from actors with faces more familiar than their names. Yes, there are a few plot points that raise an eyebrow, but nothing that forces you to give up on the story or fail, in the end, to enjoy the movie experience.

For me, however, by far the most engaging aspect of The Adjustment Bureau was the perspective or worldview it constructs through various creative means. It’s this perspective that addresses the opening question above, along with a number of related issues. Asking a few questions of our own will help bring it into focus:

1. What does the film communicate about God? God is never openly named as such in the story, but that’s not to say it doesn’t communicate a great deal about what he’s like. Referred to as “the Chairman,” he’s served by the Adjustment Bureau, a number of hierarchical angels (“We’ve been called that,” one says, who then adds, “We’re more like case officers.”) who might, given their attire, alternatively pass for archetypes of FBI agents, lawyers, or corporate functionaries. Their workplace is an imposingly tall structure of what appears to be countless rooms filled with paneled wood. The feel is complimented by the fact that they refer to each other solely by last names (Thompson, Richardson, Donaldson, etc.).

The task of this mysterious Bureau is to insure that human beings don’t deviate from “the plan.” None of its members appear to understand the plan’s justification or ultimate goal; they simply seek to safeguard it with matter-of-fact efficiency while reacting gravely to deviations. Only one, Harry Mitchell, appears uncomfortable with his task. Not only does he eventually aid David but, not coincidentally, he’s also the only agent given a first name. In deviating from the plan, he appears the most personable, the most “human.”

All this conspires to give the audience a conception of God and his agents that isn’t exactly positive, though the end of the movie offers a serious twist to this (on which, see below).

2. What does the film communicate about human beings, or at least some of them? David is by no means perfect. Upon his election to Congress, he promptly got into a bar fight. His initial senatorial campaign is stymied by photo evidence of a lewd prank. Yet everyone seems to like the guy—not always in spite of his coloring outside the lines, but because of it. In fact, his candid concession speech, in which he pulls back the curtain on the calculated manipulation of a political campaign, is the very thing that positions him for future success.

Elise is witty and beautiful. As a rising dancing talent, she expresses creative dynamism. And she, too, resists social convention. Along with David, we’re introduced to her as she exists a bathroom stall in the men’s room—in which she sought refuge in after crashing a wedding and getting caught. Instant chemistry is sealed with an impulsive kiss, and two hearts are serendipitously (?) knit together. The only problem: their relationship isn’t a part of the plan. The Bureau makes it clear he’s not meant to be with her.

But David’s ever-so-brief encounters with Elise convince him to undertake the Promethean task of resisting his own destiny. David risks everything, including the presidency, not to mention Elise’s future dancing stardom, to defy the Bureau and break with the plan.

At this point, no viewer can possibly root against the truly ill-fated couple. It’s Star Wars (“Luke, trust your feelings.”) meets School of Rock (“Stick it to the man!”) meets Braveheart (“Freedom!”), only expanded in scope. Can the indomitable human desire to shape one’s own destiny triumph in the face of the ultimate obstacle?

Apparently. This leads to the final question.

3. What does the film communicate though its ending? After leading quite a chase, David and Elise are cornered by Thompson, a senior member of the Bureau. Just as they’re about to face undoubtedly tragic consequences, Harry arrives with a message directly from the Chairman. It’s all been a test. The plan has been changed. They are free to pursue their relationship, unbound from any opposition.

David and Elise’s pluck has been rewarded. In the face of almost futile odds, they fought doggedly for freedom and won. And the Chairman? Maybe he’s not so bad after all. Can you really dislike a God who, at the end of the day, seems to appreciate and even encourage a human’s desire to say, “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul”?

All this raises several important questions:

1. Would you want to acquiesce to your destiny the world of the Chairman and the Adjustment Bureau? How does their portrayal in the film differ from the biblical view of God, his angels, etc.? What difference does that make?

2. What do we know about God’s overall plan in the Bible? What does it encompass? What’s the goal? How do we fit in? Why does that matter?

3. Looking again through the biblical lens: how qualified are we as human beings to direct our own lives? Left to our own devices, what do we choose?

4. Is God’s sovereignty over his creation, over even salvation, portrayed in such a way in the Scriptures so as to leave humanity without responsibility or dignity?

5. Finally, an interesting question for the filmmakers: if David and Elise have really undergone and passed a test, did they really alter their destiny? Or was the Chairman really in charge the whole time? How does this square with the apparent theme of the film?

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