Angels and Damon (and free will)

Angels and Damon (and free will) March 7, 2011

When searching for big ideas, a Hollywood screenwriter can’t dig any deeper than “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”

This collection of Sumerian legends is at least 4,000 years old and is among the world’s earliest known stories. Yet this Urak king wrestles with questions that haunt heroes today. Am I free? Am I doomed? Can I fight my fate?

At a key moment, the “woman of the vine” tells the king: “You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh … cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

These big questions transcend specific religions and have inspired artists through the ages, noted George Nolfi, writer and director of “The Adjustment Bureau,” a science fiction-romance hybrid starring Matt Damon that opens this weekend. However, these are also the kinds of complicated questions that make Hollywood executives roll their eyes as they search for date-night hits.

Can filmmakers do both? In this film, Nolfi and Damon said their goal was to make a romantic action film that also made people think, a popcorn flick for couples open to pondering predestination afterwards in a coffee shop.

“My influences? Everything that I have studied,” said Nolfi, during the New York press events for the movie. “The Greeks were dealing with, ‘How much are you fated?’ The Sumerians and Gilgamesh — that first written story — were dealing with that. … There are the bigger questions. … What makes life meaningful? And how much can you choose your own course? They have been an interest of mine as long as I can remember.”

The challenge is obvious, said Damon. The religious questions and the romantic chemistry have to mix into one commercial product.

“George Nolfi was a philosophy major and went to Princeton and he went on to Oxford. He’ll talk your ear off about that stuff — which you want,” said Damon, describing his colleague, who wrote “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

“You want that underpinning. You want quite a bit of understanding about this things, but you don’t want people to think that they’re coming to a movie that’s like this dry, you know, philosophy class.”

The movie centers on a congressman from New York City who meets a mysterious ballet dancer on the night of a crushing political defeat. Neither knows that higher powers were at work, since this brief encounter was orchestrated by “agents of fate” from the supernatural bureau that constantly adjust the details of people’s lives to keep them in line. At the top of this hierarchy is a godlike figure — “The Chairman.”

These guardian angels in business suits and fedoras watch the unfolding maps of people’s lives on devices that resemble GPS units crossed with tablet computers. When needed they can — within boundaries set by their Higher Power — intervene to force people back onto their predestined path.

In this case, Norris was supposed to forget the dancer and proceed with his life. But something happened and the two fell in love. Then their paths kept crossing, even though these encounters are not on their life maps. Is this mere chance, karma or free will? Is the Chairman intervening to bring them together? Are moviegoers watching John Calvin caught in “The Matrix,” wrestling with caseworkers from “Men in Black”?

“It’s certainly not accidental,” according to Michael Hackett, one of the producers, “that ‘The Adjustment Bureau,’ distilled to its purest form, echoes a number of the great belief systems around the world, religious or otherwise.”

While the film draws on a wide range of religious influences, Nolfi stressed that he worked hard avoid specifics that would drive away any one flock of believers. Nevertheless, there was no way to avoid the ultimate God question.

“You know, good and evil don’t mean much if you don’t have any free will,” he said. “Yet any conception of an all-powerful and all-knowing Higher Power that is also good. … ”

The director left the rest of that sentence hanging. “You kind of hit the shoals there, of explaining things and making them all fit together,” he continued. “There are unanswerable questions. I mean, they are questions of faith — literally.”

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