The Adjustment Bureau: ‘We’re from God and We’re Here to Help’

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay reviews The Adjustment Bureau after the jump.

“God has a plan.” How many times have we heard this bit of wisdom in times of crisis or loss? There has to be some meaning in the events that shape our individual lives and mutual history. Somebody must be in charge. What happens if this is not true? How do we explain the seemingly contradictory notions of a loving God, or at least a meaningful universe, and the random accidents that cause human pain and misery—and even more inexplicably, joy and fulfillment?

The Adjustment Bureau takes this line of thinking to its logical (or absurd) conclusion. If God has a plan, and we have some level of choice, it must be possible to go “off plan.” If that’s the case, then God must be constantly making “adjustments” at the micro and macro level. Changing a few circumstances so two strangers meet and fall in love might be simple enough. Arranging things so the right person runs for president and changes the history of the world would take a lifetime of interventions, perhaps even cruel and incomprehensible actions, to pull off. Think how much the last three U.S. presidents have been shaped by a desperate need for acknowledgment from absent or disapproving fathers. If God wanted to arrange for the “right person” to be elected to this crucial office, wouldn’t the gaping emotional hole that wished to be filled by public acclaim and a guiding sense of purpose have to be engineered by the circumstances of this person’s life?

Matt Damon’s character, David Norris, is just such a figure. His rough-and-tumble upbringing in Brooklyn and loss of his family at a young age have led him against the odds to the precipice of greatness. The youngest person ever elected to Congress, he now wants to be the next Senator from New York. And from there, the sky’s the limit. He still has some rowdy tendencies that get him in trouble—a bar fight and a mooning incident cause him to lose his first Senate campaign. But then he meets this lovely woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), who inspires him to make the best concession speech in the history of politics, setting him up for his next run. There’s just one problem: she fills the emotional hole that was causing him to run for office. People who are content with life don’t generally have the megalomania required to run for the office of Most Powerful Person in the World.  Congressman Norris meeting Elise and finding happiness would put him “off-plan.” An adjustment must be made. The relationship must be stopped.

The Bureau.

Then the film takes a deliciously comic turn. What if, in order to keep the cosmic clockwork moving, God needs not miracles or angels, but something more like a bureaucracy? That’s where the Adjustment Bureau comes in. These are the men with hats and grey suits who keep history going in the right direction. And, like any bureaucracy, the underlings don’t know the whole story. They’re organization men. Their main purpose is to keep the bosses happy and move up the ladder, not to question the morality of their actions. And sometimes mistakes are made. Blame is shifted. The fixers in the corner office have to come in and clean things up.

These roles are played quite entertainingly by John Slattery (the unguinous Roger Sterling from Mad Men), Anthony Mackie, and the incomparable Terrence Stamp (who despite his penchant for playing hard-as-nails bad guys I shall always remember rouged up and in drag as Bernadette from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). These boys from the Home Office are straight-laced and ruthless. Middle manager Richardson, played by Slattery, causes a potentially deadly accident to keep David Norris from taking a cab to find his girlfriend; and it’s suggested that the death of Norris’ brother and father were caused by the Bureau. At the same time, they’re comically undermanned (budget cuts, no doubt) and constantly having to bend time and space to keep their more creative human subjects from going off-plan.

The film was written and directed by George Nolfi, based on a story by master science fiction writer (and Berkeley High School’s own) Philip K. Dick. Nolfi was a screenwriter on Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, and therefore presumably has experience writing stage directions like: “Matt Damon is pursued by people trying to kill him.” The film is brilliantly balanced. It takes deft storytelling to make the men in hats simultaneously dangerous and slightly inept. The film is spare, like a short story well-adapted for the screen. The acting and dialogue are understated and efficient without being dull, and Nolfi resists the temptation to show off with special effects. There is CGI, but the film could easily have been made fifty years ago without missing a step on the visuals.

The crux of the film is free will versus predestination, Calvin versus Aquinas, Plato versus Aristotle—a romantic comedy of Western metaphysics. Even the main characters—Elise is the spontaneous dancer in love with David the calculating politician—represent the interplay of philosophical opposites.

David (Matt Damon), the politician, and Elsie (Emily Blunt), the dancer.

I suspect some people may object to the sheer, brutal Calvinism of the Bureau. More “advanced” theological minds may suggest that we don’t think this way anymore, that we have matured in our view of humans as co-creators with God, or even beyond the idea of divine interference at all. But I’m not sure this is completely true. Having spent the last ten years of my life in the midst of theological education and religious leadership, the “will” of God weighs heavily on seminary students, ministers, and committed laypeople. Religious types are unfailingly intuitive, often following the dictates of their conscience against what seems logical or systematic. There are differing levels of this worldview, of course. Some of us believe in God’s will, but that our human nature and desire factor into God’s cosmic decision-making. Others feel our humanity only “gets in God’s way.” If you really want to torture an evangelical Protestant, wait until they’re making a difficult life decision and suggest, “But how do you know what you want is what God wants?”

This kind of thinking is bound up in many of our cultural and political assumptions as Americans. This country’s founders were fierce Calvinists who believed they were building a “City on a Hill.” They were elected, “called,” to this duty, and yet they were terrified of running afoul of the divine plan. Most of the current conflicts in American politics, from gay rights, to abortion, to the response to 9/11, to the “moral crisis” of the budget deficit, can be traced to the assumption—shared by liberals and conservatives—of the cosmic importance of American action and dread of running afoul of the sacred trust of our privileged position in history.

It all comes down to theodicy and theological anthropology. If you believe in a God who is present, who interferes, or has even been incarnate in human form, to some extent you believe in the Adjustment Bureau. What I like about the film is it suggests human error and random chance are the inevitable result of a species struggling to maturity. This world is all part of The Plan, not the result of The Fall. The film even suggests human beings can change God’s mind—which is not at all incompatible with Jewish and Christian scriptures.

My own belief is that God does not “cause” violent actions or purposefully deprive people of wholeness in order to keep history moving forward. But nevertheless pain, and the growth and moral evolution that comes with it, happens. God and humanity are on an adventure together in which the spiritual is becoming known in the material world. This is a messy process: at times tragic, at times joyful, at times absurd. A metaphysical romantic comedy indeed.

The Adjustment Bureau (106 mins.) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a spot of violence and is in theaters everywhere.