Film Review

The Adjustment Bureau

Review by William Rodriguez


Vol. 15, No. 2, October 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

[1] Based loosely on Philip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, the film The Adjustment Bureau is an exploration of human freedom, fate, free will and determinism. Written and directed by George Nolfi, the film serves as a unique springboard into this captivating theological/philosophical debate. The major presupposition against free will is voiced by one of the agents: “[Humans] don’t have free will, [they] have the appearance… major choices are all predetermined.”  A challenge is presented by the following quote: “free will is a gift you never know how to use, until you have to fight for it.” 

[2] David Norris (Matt Damon) is a self-destructive, impulsive, young congressman, who squanders an opportunity to gain a New York Senate seat by performing a lewd act which is caught on camera. While practicing his concession speech in the men’s bathroom of his hotel, he discovers a bohemian, impulsive dancer named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) hiding in a stall. After a brief encounter, which culminates in a kiss, the smitten Congressman is inspired to give an honest account of his run for office. His candor works to his benefit as this act serves to save his political career.

[3] Years later, a chance meeting with Elise on a bus results in a rekindling of their budding romance and culminates in an exchange of telephone numbers. David arrives at his office and discovers that everyone is frozen and finds mysterious men rearranging reality. After a surreal chase, David is captured and taken to a warehouse, where he is interrogated by Richardson (John Slattery), a supervising agent of the Adjustment Bureau. David discovers that he has a pre-determined plan and was not fated to meet Elise a second time. It appears fate determined that they would meet only once. The day they met on the bus was an accident since the assigned agent Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) fell asleep and failed to intercept David. He is cautioned against sharing what he has seen, and is threatened with a “reset” (an erasure of his memory).

[4] After three years of riding the same bus hoping to find Elise, David discovers her on the street. Agents of the Bureau attempt to stop their relationship by manipulating people, telephones, traffic lights, and diverting taxis. After repeated attempts fail, the Bureau assigns the case to a senior agent named Thompson (Terrence Stamp). David is again captured, interrogated and released. An intense philosophical debate with Thompson about human freedom and fate takes place, but David decides to attend Elise’ dance recital, only to witness a fall that threatens her future. Thompson, who had caused the injury, informs David that he is fated for the White House while Elise will achieve stardom only if they are apart. Overwhelmed by his predicament, David abandons Elise at the hospital.

[5] Eleven months later, while on the campaign trail, David comes across Elise’s wedding announcement and seeks to drown his misery at a bar. Here he encounters a repentant Harry who informs him that Thompson had lied and exaggerated. After Harry instructs David on how to elude the Bureau, David finds Elise, finds his way to the Bureau, and convinces the Chairman (God???) to alter their plan.

[6] The Adjustment Bureau serves as an allegory that explores the conflict between human freedom of choice and deterministic outcomes preordained by outside forces such as fate or supernaturalism. The ultimate question regards whether human beings control of their own destinies or if other forces determine (or have determined) the course their lives should take. There are three camps in this debate: hard determinism (the belief that there is no free will and that everything that happens has been caused and that we simply act according to a plan), soft determinism (the assumption that causality does not imply compulsion and that our choices are uncompelled because they are willfully acted upon), and indeterminism (this view establishes that genuine freedom requires real choices).

[7] Thompson articulates the perspective of hard determinism in the film. He concludes that the Bureau had tried free will. When human beings were given the gift, the results were pain and suffering as evidenced by the Dark Ages. As a result free will was taken from them. The only real choice we have is choosing the plan or not choosing the plan. Agents are authorized by the Chairman to keep the people on plan.  David, on the other hand, articulates a soft determinism. He recognizes that he can’t outrun his fate (both figuratively and literally); “all I have are the choices that I make.” Running throughout the movie is a strong libertarian argument that challenges determinism in both forms. For example, Richardson admits that in one version of the plan David and Elise were fated to be together. This leads to the conclusion that plans can and do change. David challenges fatalism and dismisses the plan by asserting that Elise is more than enough to fill the void in his life. This risk to go against the plan is ultimately rewarded by the Chairman. Risk inspires the Chairman to rewrite the plan.

[8] As a film The Adjustment Bureau is far from perfect. A number of unsatisfying plot devices and contradictions, as well as the necessary suspension of doubt stretch the limits of credulity. Nevertheless, the film does raise a number of questions about the nature of human choice, actions and causality. In the end, the film leaves you wanting to talk through these issues and search for your own conclusions.

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