My Review of “The Adjustment Bureau”
David (Matt Damon) meets Elise (Emily Blunt) and their attraction is instant and powerful. Consequently, David becomes determined to pursue a relationship with her. Unfortunately, some mysterious men in suits and hats who possess bizarre powers keep showing up, and they are determined to keep the couple apart. These are “Adjustment Bureau” (AB) agents, and their job is to keep things running “according to plan,” viz. the plan of “the chairman” (God) which, sadly, does not include David and Elise being together. The question is: will David do the “reasonable” thing and acquiesce to “the plan,” or will he instead choose to follow his heart, push back against “the plan” and court disaster?
I KNOW: it sounds a little corny! And I confess The Adjustment Bureau (TAB) has a few bona fide corny moments. But despite these (and several other) imperfections, I absolutely LOVED this movie! Five stars! Two thumbs WAY UP!! In fact, I think this might be the most intelligent treatment of the fate/free will dilemma I’ve ever seen coming out of Hollywood. (Granted, that’s not saying much… but still.) Here are five theological and philosophical ideas that were nicely (and in a few instances, brilliantly) explored or illustrated in this movie that I find compelling.
Spoiler Alert: While the following discussion reveals little about the actual story-line of TAB it does flesh out my interpretation of the story’s metaphysical assumptions, which may in turn render aspects of the movie less surprising for some than it might otherwise be.
1) TAB acknowledges that determinism and the existence of an exhaustively settled future are logically incompatible with morally responsible free will. If humans (as well as AB agents) are free, they cannot also be exhaustively governed by a meticulous “plan” they themselves didn’t write. One might have thought this would have been obvious, but as a matter of fact, in Hollywood (as in most conservative Christian circles) most people assume the opposite. Indeed, both groups often wallow in the “mystery” (nonsense, in my opinion) of how determinism and free will are “two sides of the same coin.” To its credit, TAB acknowledges that free choices can’t be predetermined for the same reason triangles cannot be round and bachelors cannot be married.
2) While free will rules out determinism and an exhaustively settled future, TAB brilliantly illustrates that free will does NOT rule out the existence of a cosmic plan – and a rather meticulous plan at that! It just means the plan must incorporate the possible free decisions of others and thus must be, within limits, flexible. Hence, the small black book that interfaces “the plan” with the actual unfolding world that the agents use to stay ahead of the game is a LIVING book that subtly (and occasionally, not-so-subtly) changes moment-by-moment.
While I obviously can’t endorse every detail of the metaphysical framework of TAB, I felt it demonstrated (at least by implication) that a “chairman” (God) who was smart enough could have a personal, moment-by-moment plan for every one of his creations as well as a plan that assures his overall objectives for creation will be attained while yet granting free will to agents and thus while facing a partly open future. (In other words, Philip Dick, the author of TAB, understood what the majority of the critics of Open Theism thus far have not: that is, only a chairman with limited intelligence would need to, or want to, have a plan with an exhaustively settled future.)
3) One of the things I loved most about TAB was its understanding that every free decision humans (and AB agents) make causes “ripple effects” that intersect with other “ripple effects” in unfathomably complex ways. The outcomes of these intersecting “ripple effects” can only be expressed (in the living black book) as ever-evolving probabilities until they reach a point of inevitability at which point they become certain. (Though, TAB makes it clear that sometimes agents mistakenly think a future outcome is 100% resolved when it in fact is not.) One of the ingenious ways David fights the AB agents in his quest to be with Elise is that he consistently acts in highly improbable ways that in turn produce unanticipated ripple effects that AB agents have trouble controlling. Since the Bureau has limited resources, David’s hope is that he’ll make the prevention of his relationship with Elise more trouble to the Bureau than it’s worth.
4) TAB is premised on the view that there is a vast, complex and hidden realm (a “Bureau”) of agents who are finite and imperfect, just as humans are, but whose decisions and job competency creates ripple effects in our lives, for better or for worse. Since their knowledge is limited (though much less so than ours), we ought not be surprised to learn that their beliefs about the chairman and “the plan” differ from one another. For example, I was amused to discover that a rather nasty high-ranking officer (Thompson) was a virtual Calvinist while a low-ranking agent (Harold) clearly believed that even fundamental aspects of “the plan” could, at least in principle, be revised.
In any event, I see no reason why we shouldn’t accept that something like this depiction of the angelic realm is true. Check out Ps. 82 in which Yahweh threatens a council of gods because they aren’t carrying out their duties in a competent fashion! (I discuss this in some depth in God at War.) Accepting the existence of a vast invisible society of free agents potentially affects our perspective on the problem of evil. Among other things, it intensifies our appreciation for why we can never know why any particular event – including any episode of evil– unfolds the way it does. For to understand this, we’d have to exhaustively understand the entire history of ripple effect decision-making from the beginning of time, both on earth and in the angelic realm. Had any event in the past been different, things might have unfolded differently in the present. Since we obviously can’t even begin to fathom this level of complexity, we have to accept that life will always appear to unfold in largely arbitrary ways.
As I argue in Is God to Blame?, if we appreciate the complexity of the cosmos, we will abandon our clichéd attempts to explain why evil events happen the way they do. Amidst the sea of arbitrary chaos that characterizes our lives, it is enough for us to know that God is love, revealed in Jesus Christ, and that he’s got an infinitely wise plan on how to bring good out of evil for every possible event that might come our way.
5) Finally, toward the end of the movie Harold (the low-ranking pro-freedom AB agent) affirms that “everything is a kind of test.” In the context of this movie – and, I believe, in the context of sound theology – this doesn’t mean every event is orchestrated by God to be a test. Rather, while each event that comes to pass is the result of an unfathomably complex network of intersecting contingent variables (all incorporated into and governed by the ever-evolving plan of the “chairman”), each event that impacts us presents us with a choice of how we will respond to it. In fact, as David says to Thompson, the nasty Calvinist agent; “All I have are my choices, and I choose her [Elise], regardless of the consequences” (or something close to this).
This is the ultimate test: will we choose to love, even if doing so means we must defy [apparent] fate and court disaster? And to ask this is to ask: will we choose freedom rather than acquiesce to the forces that try to determine us (including Calvinistic agents like Thompson)?
So, I encourage you to choose love and freedom at all costs…. and, if you haven’t done so already, to freely choose to go to this brilliant movie.