Are we in charge of our lives, or are decisions made for us long before we consider them? Do we control our destiny, or do unseen forces manipulate it? These questions come directly from the press notes of the film The Adjustment Bureau, a romantic thriller starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. This proposition has been well represented throughout movie history. In 2002 similar themes were found in M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi thriller Signs. Using alien invasion as a metaphor for human fears, Shyamalan also asked, are the details of life governed merely by happenstance, or are they part of a great plan? Written and directed by George Nolfi (Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum), The Adjustment Bureau examines this same intriguing topic, though more from a conspiratorial perspective wherein a governing Higher Power ultimately needs man’s correcting.
Matt Damon plays ambitious politician David Norris, who by chance meets and quickly falls in love with a beautiful ballet dancer played by Emily Blunt. Soon, he must defy the agents of Fate—a mysterious group of men known as case workers headed by an unfeeling and unseen force, who attempt to separate them. Pronouncing to David that he doesn’t see the Big Picture, Fate demands he deny himself in order to save mankind. The production is based upon the short story Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick (Total Recall, Minority Report and Blade Runner), which analyzes the conundrum, can free will be revoked?
Producer Chris Moore: “I was interested in George Nolfi’s take on what control we have over our own lives. I also loved that the material crosses a number of genres. There are thriller elements, action and a great love story—as well as a personal crisis about what you believe in and who are you going to be.”
Decades ago, legendary filmmaker Michael Powell probed the same proposition in his romantic fantasy, Stairway To Heaven. Powell’s film, like Nolfi’s, worked on our romantic impulses, but was careful not to suggest that God was a distant and uncaring force. Powell’s protagonist eventually sought a Higher Power’s grace rather than suggesting we have a fallible Creator. The spiritual significance of The Adjustment Bureau, on the other hand, is somewhat muted as the makers tend to approach the free-will debate on an oppositional platform, feeling no disposition to reverence God. Matt Damon seems to enjoy roles that contain an antagonistic activism against authority. This can be perceived as a positive aspect of his moral makeup when addressing man’s governing powers, but can be construed as somewhat presumptuous, even blasphemous, when accusing our Heavenly Father of being a cosmic bully.
Of course, the filmmakers would argue that they aren’t talking about God or angels. Everyone interviewed at the recent press junket was purposely vague as to who or what this higher power actually was.
Director Nolfi speaking about the members of the Fate squad: “They’re an expression of a higher power, so it’s not like a government agency that doesn’t want you to do something. They have powers that go way beyond what the earthly powers of an intelligence organization would be. They set us on the course that we are supposed to be set onto so we will follow the grand scheme, or the grand plan. To them they just work at a bureau. They might as well work in the IRS; they’re just doing their jobs.”
Okay, but in the film, there is this all-knowing force overlooking mankind, he has representatives with limited power who intercede on man’s behalf, and the film deals with free will, an element of human existence that can only be given by a higher being. Only the most secular among us can assume these creatures are IRS employees.
Those of us who believe the verses found in Philippians 4:19 and Hebrews 4:16, both lessons assuring that our Creator is a caring, giving God moved by our entreaties, have yet to find a major studio release that addresses free will and heavenly intercession from an unabashed spiritual perspective. Most filmmakers prefer a humanistic approach, often making God a supporting character more in need of discipline than mankind.
Because of this implied irreverence, will The Adjustment Bureau (T. A. B.) be completely dissatisfying for the Christian moviegoer? There was a mix of admiration and frustration among my colleagues concerning both the film’s theme and emotional tones, causing lively exchange. And that’s the film’s strength – it leads to discussion. Damon is a winning actor, Blunt is beautiful and convincing in any role, and writer/director George Nolfi keeps his narrative compelling, the action lively. Added to this, there is the tender romance and that interesting concept – would God ever take away our free will? If discontented with movies unclear in their ecclesiastical perspective, this one may also be found lacking. In its defense, T. A. B. contains two elements that make a film stand out – it has a potent love connection and it makes you think.
Emily Blunt: “If that relationship doesn’t work, you don’t have a movie.”
Matt Damon: “Emily’s right. Without that love coming across, there is no movie.”
This is a pedigree film. Everyone involved has either won an Oscar or someday will. It’s photographed by two-time Oscar®-winner John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart), the score is done by Grammy-winning composer Thomas Newman (WALL·E, Revolutionary Road), Emily Blunt received great notices for Young Victoria, Matt Damon won an Oscar for his co-writing of Good Will Hunting and gave a masterful supporting performance in True Grit, production designer Kevin Thompson did the production designing for Duplicity and Michael Clayton, and Kasia Walicka Maimone was the costume designer for Amelia, Capote. They’re the cream of the crop.
It is difficult bringing spiritual matters to the screen, especially by a committee of movie makers unwilling to relay a message from a biblical perspective. The best they can achieve is to generate discourse. This George Nolfi and his case workers achieve. And despite its creators, the romantic thriller reminds us to search for the truth in God’s Word.
The Adjustment Bureau opens March 4th. For Phil Boatwright’s review and its content, come back opening day.