Fate vs. choice. Free will vs. predestination. Human decision vs. divine destiny.
For millennia, humankind has wrestled with these competing notions of how much freedom we really have to determine our own ends. Do our decisions matter? Or are they somehow scripted for us? Or is it all just up to chance in the end?
While these questions have animated many a theological debate, they don’t keep David Norris up at night. The youngest-ever New York state representative is on the brink of winning his first senatorial contest. And as far as he’s concerned, his fate is firmly in his own hands. After all, that’s the message he idealistically delivers to voters: “Your future is about your choices,” he says in a stump speech. “Not theirs.”
When an embarrassing photo of a bawdy college stunt sabotages David’s campaign, however, the future he’s always envisioned seems in doubt. Until, that is, a random encounter with a beautiful woman named Elise.
A chance moment of serendipity?
David soon learns, much to his dismay, that his future has very little to do with his choices. Instead, his fate has been decreed by someone with the faintly ominous title of The Chairman. And The Chairman has The Plan. And serving the interests of The Plan are a group of scowling, fedora-wearing, vaguely J. Edgar Hooverian agents—members of The Adjustment Bureau.
Their job? Make sure no one drifts too far from The Plan.
But David is something of a problem child when it comes to submitting to plans. He struggles to submit to his own plans, let alone anyone else’s. And in the wake of meeting Elise, plans are the least of his concern. Feelings are what matter to him now.
There’s only one problem: In The Plan, David was only supposed to bump into Elise one time, an exposure designed to give his course a slight adjustment. The Plan wasn’t for him to fall in love with her. But when he sees Elise again on a bus, The Plan gets lobbed out the window.
And The Adjustment Bureau is none too happy about that.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
The Adjustment Bureau is equal parts high-concept thriller and unabashed love story. And it’s the latter element that invites viewers to make an emotional investment. At its heart, The Adjustment Bureau is about refusing to let anything or anyone get in the way of true love.
Since he was quite young, the only thing David wanted to be was a politician. But meeting Elise awakens something in him that he’s never felt or experienced, and he begins to question whether his aspirations are ultimately as important as sharing his life with the woman he loves. It’s something he feels so deeply, in fact, that he’s determined to thwart the agents of The Bureau, who tell him that he and Elise cannot be together.
Playing a crucial role in helping David is the agent assigned to him, a weary but sensitive man named Harry. Unlike everyone else at The Bureau, Harry’s having second thoughts about The Chairman’s blueprint. He’s shepherded David’s life since birth. But some of the difficult things he’s had to do to keep David on course—such as, it’s implied, taking the lives of David’s brother and father to help ensure that he pursues a political career—have left a bad taste in his mouth. In the end, Harry chooses to use his special powers to help David find and be with Elise.
At one point, an agent named Thompson convinces David that his being with Elise is ultimately bad for both of them because it means that neither will be able to pursue their Plan-given destinies. David will not become the president, as is supposed to happen, and Elise will not become the world-class ballerina that she’s intended to become. For a moment, David is swayed by the logic that their being together will take from Elise the one thing she cares about most—her dancing—and he leaves her (for a time) so that she can achieve that destiny.
On the surface, David’s career has been guided by his longsuffering friend and campaign manager, Charlie Traynor, who is deeply loyal to him.
David’s world is one in which many humans’ actions—and certainly their most important decisions—are subtly guided behind the scenes by agents of a deity-like entity. David accidentally stumbles into knowledge of The Bureau’s activities when he shows up to work (at an investment company following a failed senatorial run) and finds that black-clad men have eerily pushed the pause button on everyone—and that they’re apparently doing something to Charlie’s mind.
Pursuit ensues, but the agents have the supernatural ability to use virtually any door as a shortcut to another door—as long as they’re wearing their special hats—thus staying forever in front of David. Once he’s captured, they decide to level with him and tell him the truth about who they are and what they’re up to. There’s only one caveat: If he ever tells anyone, they’ll capture him and erase his mind.
Eventually, David learns why these agents are doing what they’re doing. Thompson tells David that throughout history, The Chairman has periodically pulled back the influence of The Bureau’s agents to see how well humanity would make decisions. Such pullbacks resulted in the worst periods in human history: the Dark Ages, World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, the Cold War. Conversely, the greatest periods of advancement in human culture—the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment—were all products of The Chairman taking a more active role in guiding human history through the workings of The Adjustment Bureau.
The upshot, according to Thompson, is that apart from The Chairman’s benevolent subversion of humanity’s self-destructive bent, the people of earth would choose to destroy one another. Which is why, Thompson concludes, “You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.”
Harry is the other person who teaches David about the moves and motives and abilities of The Bureau. Harry admires David’s ruthless determination to find Elise. And he harbors significant doubts about the goodness and beneficial nature of The Plan—in part because it sometimes apparently means laying premature claim on the lives of good people (like David’s father and brother). So when David asks him, “Are you an angel?” Harry replies, “We’ve been called that.” He clarifies their purpose by saying that the agents are “case officers who help humans.”
In a roundabout discussion about God, Harry also tells David that The Chairman appears to people in many different forms. We learn in the end that everyone is being tested, and that The Chairman actually wants people to use their free will in pursuit of their dreams and in pursuit of love.
Despite The Bureau’s dogged efforts to keep them apart, David and Elise do indeed connect … and eventually consummate their relationship. Showing us their bare backs and shoulders, the camera watches them in bed as they kiss, embrace and move sensually. Later, Thompson is (creepily) shown standing at the foot of their bed watching them sleep.
David notices Elise’s short skirt … and she notices him noticing and makes a joke about it. Several times, the couple kisses passionately.
Some of Elise’s contemporary ballet movements are quite sensual. She also wears (very) low-cut tops. The college prank that comes back to haunt David involves a photo of him mooning a group of people.
Chasing David, Harry gets hit by a car and bounces hard off its windshield. In another chase scene, David tries to hail a cab, but agents engineer an accident in which the vehicle is jarringly T-boned. The driver is shaken and has blood on his face. When David does get a cab, he instructs the driver to run the red lights.
Thompson causes Elise to fall during a ballet performance, and we hear the crunch of her ankle being badly sprained. At the hospital, David hits Thompson in the face. He knocks out another agent in a separate scene.
Groups of black-clad soldiers with face masks pursue David and Elise. David roughly straight-arms agents who get in his way.
One f-word. Fifteen s-words. One abuse of Jesus’ name. A half-dozen misuses of God’s name. (Once it is paired with “d‑‑n,” and it’s worth noting that it comes from the lips of one of The Adjustment Bureau agents—as do some of the other expletives.) “H‑‑‑” is uttered about 10 times. A handful of other profanities include “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch” and “b‑‑tard.” Elise jokingly flips the bird at David. She calls his political opponent a “tool.”
We briefly see people drinking beer, champagne or wine.
When David and Elise first meet, she’s hiding in a men’s room stall to evade hotel security after crashing a wedding party. She’s shown with a bottle of champagne that she apparently purloined from the party.
David snatches Elise away from her fiancé moments before they’re to be married. In the movie’s romanticized logic, it’s OK because Elise didn’t really want to be with the other man anyway. Still, his feelings in the matter aren’t given much consideration.
Content concerns and philosophic messaging are rarely as removed from each other as they are in The Adjustment Bureau. So I’ve decided to deal with them (mostly) as separate instances.
First, the content: A car wreck, some fisticuffs, a fair bit of profanity and a sex scene.
Second, the overlap: The Chairman gives his blessing to David and Elise’s love, indirectly condoning the fact that they’ve initiated a sexual relationship before marriage.
Third, the philosophy: Few theological discussions are as likely to provoke as much heated debate as the age-old paradox of free will vs. predestination. And while The Adjustment Bureau is not explicitly about a Christian understanding of that thorny conundrum, this hybrid thriller/love story—which feels like an unlikely mash-up of The Matrix and Sleepless in Seattle—taps into the emotional and intellectual tension inherent in that debate.
It does not try to provide definitive spiritual answers about God’s role in our lives, painting with too broad of a brush to be taken as prescriptive theology. And if looked to as a guide for how to think about free will, moviegoers will walk away with little more than romanticized musings. But that doesn’t mean its makers aren’t trying to say something with their work.
Producer Michael Hackett puts it this way in the film’s production notes: “The Bureau represents a cipher of all interpretations people may have for ‘the other.’ That other power, that thing outside yourself that guides your actions. It’s certainly not accidental that The Adjustment Bureau, distilled to its purest form, echoes a number of the great belief systems around the world, religious or otherwise.”
The film’s writer and director, George Nolfi, told Plugged In, “I [felt] when I was finishing up the movie that I wanted to expose it to people of faith, because I think it’s very central to being a person of faith to actually grapple with these issues, as opposed to people who don’t want to have anything to do with religion who often don’t want to grapple with [these questions] at all. … This [movie] gets into the issues and the territory that religious people make central to their lives.”
Nolfi declined to answer questions about his own faith, interestingly, saying he was intent on making people sort through the movie’s messages without putting them through “the director’s” own grid.
So how far you go down the path of equating The Chairman with God may well be the determining factor in how you react to The Adjustment Bureau—both positively and negatively. But as you react, you’ll realize that this film, which is based on a short story by sci-fi maestro Philip K. Dick, has managed to elevate itself to the status of rare big-budget Hollywood production: One that strives to deal intelligently and entertainingly with one of the stickiest subjects in human history. One that strives to leaves audiences thinking and talking about something significantly more substantive than cool special effects.
Hint: You’ll be thinking and talking about how free will really is an incredible gift, and how the love a man and a woman can share together is worth so very much more than any kind of career or ambition.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.