The Adjustment Bureau— God's Divine Plan?

 Greg Bandy from Asbury University called me, and asked me to join a preview of this movie over a week ago.  Unfortunately I was on a plane to New Orleans when it was being shown.  There were no divine adjustments in my schedule permitting me to see it then.   And that brings us to our movie, which is well worth the time and money to see.   Is it about predestination?  Well,  not exactly, though it has been billed that way.   Matt Damon is once again the hero of the film and he is joined by a very winsome performance by Emily Blunt.  The chemistry between these two is worth seeing even if there was nothing else to like about the film,  but there is.

Here is the Universal synopsis of the film— “Do we control our destiny, or do unseen forces manipulate us? Matt Damon stars in the thriller The Adjustment Bureau as a man who glimpses the future Fate has planned for him and realizes he wants something else. To get it, he must pursue the only woman he’s ever loved across, under and through the streets of modern-day New York. On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris (Damon) meets beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt)–a woman like none he’s ever known. But just as he realizes he’s falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he is up against the agents of Fate itself–the men of The Adjustment Bureau–who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. In the face of overwhelming odds, he must either let her go and accept a predetermined path…or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her. The Adjustment Bureau is written for the screen and directed by George Nolfi (writer of Ocean’s Twelve, co-writer of The Bourne Ultimatum). It is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (“Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner”). — (C) Universal Pictures”

For about an hour and forty minutes we are asked to contemplate how exactly human existence on this planet really works.  Is it all rigged from above? Are we just marionettes?   Actually the answer of this movie is no.   Human beings do have some control over their destiny.   But at the same time,  this movie is not an ode to free will either.  There is a divine plan, it is being worked out,but it is constantly needing adjustments by agents in suits and hats (Wall Street’s vision of angels I suppose).  The Chairman,  aka, the man upstairs has far more control than we do,  but interestingly, he does not control our impulses or emotions.  So despite the best efforts of programming angels, sometimes people go off track, off the grid,  off line, off kilter, prompting house calls by said agents/angels.   If one gets way out of line, then an archangel named Thompson is called in.   This story must have been written by someone who has a businessman’s vision of what angels and God and heaven are like— God the great CEO in the sky.   But interestingly, even angels can get out of line.  I found the presentation of God and the angels too clinical, cold, and lacking empathy, with the exception of  David Norris’s guardian angel.  Otherwise the angels come across as manipulators, “ours is not to reason why, ours is just to do or …..”

This movie reminds me of an early Jewish saying— “all is forseen (by God), but free will is granted”.   True freedom to make conscious wise and loving choices seems to be a rarity, but still, despite the opposition of angels and plans,  apparently it can happen.    I will not spoil the ending of the film for you, but I will definitely say this—- in terms of the idea of the divine plan and divine supervision while still leaving some room for important and viable human choices,  I think this film gets it about right from a Biblical point of view.  Neither total predetermination nor complete free will, but something in between these extremes which makes both humans and the divine active participants in the human drama.  Christians in the end, should not be fatalists, those who believe in Fate.  Intended destiny perhaps, but not Fate.   And doubtless we will debate until the second coming to what degree the will of God and the wills of humans decide important matters in this world.

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  • Jonathan

    I don’t know what everybody else thinks, but I’m definitely predestined not to be a fatalist!

  • ben witherington

    I understand Jonathan. You need a T shirt like one of mine—- ” I guess I was predestined to believe in free will” :)


  • Ian Paul

    There was a similar/parallel question behind Forrest Gump, wasn’t there? It was more cast in terms of do we control our destiny, or are we like a feather blown on the wind? And I think the answer was ‘both’…

  • Oscar

    One of the members of the Bureau said that Norris had “the appearance of free will”. That line gave me a good laugh because I am not a Calvinist at heart and resist the cold, calculating use of scripture to lump all of humanity into either saints or “cordwood for the fires of hell”.

    Also I didn’t care for the “archangel” stating that humans could teach the “chairman” a thing or two. If this were a direct analogy to Christian thought then I’d say that it skirted heresy but, after all, it is just a movie.

    Theology aside I found the movie mildly entertaining. Damon was Damon, but the thought that such a callow and self serving person could be chosen to be president was quite chilling to ponder.

    Emily Blunt was a scene stealer and upstaged Damon every time they were together. Then again, maybe I’m showing my male bias toward a visually pleasing female lead.

    One hour and forty minutes? Really? To me it felt longer. This was a short story that was stretched out to a full length movie, but I think it would have been better to keep it at 70 minutes or so. There were some really slow spots that could have been easily cut, but weren’t.

    The movie was just “OK” as far as I was concerned, but the theme was one that stayed with me for a few days. It brought to mind another story written by Robert Heinlen called “Puppet Masters”, but “Bureau” was much more religious in concept.

    Maybe I’m just too hard to impress, me being a Sci-Fi fan and all…

  • Scott

    I agree that it was billed as a free will vs. predestination film, but my wife and I thought that there was something else lurking under the surface.

    To us the film hinted at sexual revolution. While the relationship of the film was between a man and a woman, different situations seemed to be questioning our (the conservative crossection) society’s negative perspective of the legitimacy of homosexual relationships.

    Damon first challenges an agent with, “you don’t know why we can’t be together, you only have the plan/book.”

    When Thompson challenges him in the warehouse Damon pleads with “how can it be wrong if I feel so right” speech

    Thompson begins to uncover that their futures of greatness are in peril if they are together. But later we find out that it is simply a lie.

    So why can’t the happy couple be together, “because it’s not in the book.”

    And then the “twist” at the end, well, God says its ok.

    I enjoyed the movie, but I think that it was tracking in another direction.

  • Anthony

    Scott – I agree with what you said regarding the films central theme, or perhaps moral. In short, the film was basically saying that who we most essentially are, and what most essentially matters can be discerned by our passions and desires. Everything else must take a back seat to these things in our lives.