“The Adjustment Bureau” (2011). Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly. Director: George Nolfi. Screenplay: George Nolfi. Story: Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Team. www.theadjustmentbureau.com/
Are we free to choose our destiny, or is it fated and beyond our control? That thorny question has perplexed scholars and philosophers for eons, and it’s an inquiry that’s probed once again in the taut new thriller, “The Adjustment Bureau.”
Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), one of the youngest members ever elected to the House of Representatives, appears poised to make a quantum leap in his career. As the front runner in the New York Senate race, the feisty, charismatic young Brooklynite would seem to be on the verge of yet another political breakthrough. However, the brashness that made him such a popular contender in the first place also has its downside, and that personal shortcoming catches up with him in the waning days of the election. The revelation of an embarrassing incident from his past derails his campaign at the last minute, a disheartening prelude to a bitter loss.
While practicing his concession speech on election night, David has an unexpected, and quite unusual, encounter with a beguiling, enigmatic free spirit, Elise (Emily Blunt). They share insights, and a kiss, resulting in an instant, undeniable attraction, the kind that includes, but ultimately transcends, romance. However, all magic of the moment aside, circumstances force a hasty separation, one that keeps them from even being able to exchange contact information. But, despite the brevity of their encounter, Elise’s liberated thinking leaves quite an impression on David, helping to remind him of who he really is. It even prompts him to scrap his planned remarks and give a candid, off-the-cuff speech that further distinguishes his outspoken style, signaling the voting public that the maverick lives and that his political career is anything but over.
With the election behind him and his Congressional seat lost, David needs to find work, so he takes a job in the private sector with his longtime friend and advisor, Charlie (Michael Kelly). He still thinks fondly about his encounter with Elise, but, since he has no way to contact her, he tries to focus on other pursuits, such as work and a future run for office. And, thanks to the efforts of a team of shadowy, clandestine operatives, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.
Or is it?
As David heads off to work one morning, he has another unexpected encounter with Elise, one that largely picks up where they left off. Unlike their first meeting, however, this one wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s because one of the operatives charged with ensuring that events unfold “according to plan,” Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), failed to prevent their meeting. With “scripted” events now threatening to fall apart, the operatives hurriedly step in to “correct” matters, but, in doing so, they also inadvertently make David aware of their existence, complicating their task even further.
The operatives’ leader, Richardson (John Slattery), refers to his team of agents as “the Adjustment Bureau,” a group of specially trained, specially gifted individuals responsible for seeing that human destiny plays out as it’s “supposed” to. Richardson warns David not to deviate from the plan any further or to reveal the Bureau’s existence to anyone. But, being the fighter that he is, David refuses to let others dictate his fate. He thus vows to take on the Bureau and to live the life he wants, a tall order given their many talents. He manages to hold his own, though, eventually necessitating the involvement of one of the Bureau’s toughest operatives, Thompson (Terence Stamp), to rectify matters. But, as this battle of wills plays out, a number of burning questions arise as well—for both viewers and characters—such as why does the Bureau exist in the first place? Why is it so vital for David (or any of us, for that matter) to stick to the plan? Can it be changed? And, perhaps most importantly, who wrote this plan in the first place?
The duel of fate vs. free will thus takes center stage in this picture, begging the question, which one will win out? Conscious creation practitioners will no doubt want to place their bets on free will as it’s one of the cornerstone principles of this philosophy and practice. But is that the wisest wager? After all, even those of us who are the most adept at using this skill have been thwarted in manifesting our creations from time to time, producing results far off the mark from what we thought we intended. Incidents like that might even cause the philosophy’s staunchest followers to question its validity and viability.
But what if those seemingly misdirected results are exactly what we’re supposed to manifest? Perhaps they result because of a confused concoction of beliefs—the driver of conscious creation practice—some of which we’re aware of and some of which we’re not. Maybe such incidents are meant to serve as lessons along our learning curves, taking us through “failures” that make us aware of “faulty” beliefs and ultimately help guide us to desired successes. And, as these events unfold, perhaps the people, circumstances or materials we encounter in connection with them are meant to serve as our own personal versions of “the adjustment bureau,” manifestations that doggedly keep us on the path on which we’re supposed to be to get the lessons we need.
Such elements might seem like the product of capricious acts of fate, manifestations that arise from beyond our control. And good arguments could be made in favor of that case, especially when they involve elements that strike us as patently unfair or utterly demoralizing. In light of that, one might even contend that free will is nothing but a pie-in-the-sky illusion.
But, as noted above, what if we draw such elements to us as part of our learning process, even if they don’t seem like they’re for our benefit at the time? Such a realization wouldn’t negate the concept of free will, but it certainly would give us a new understanding of—and appreciation for—it. It could conceivably strip away all notions that any kind of a duel even exists between the notions of fate and free will, enlightening us to the fact that what we perceive as the cruelty of fate may be nothing more than a well-camouflaged aspect of free will, one that’s often integral to the progression of our individual learning curves. It could also bring about a new understanding of the conscious creation process, especially the breadth of its power and the need for responsibly managing it. And, perhaps most importantly, it ultimately might help to shed light on just who really writes “the plan” of our lives to begin with, an answer that might surprise in more ways than one.I enjoyed this movie immensely. It comes across like a fusion of the “Bourne” series of thrillers and such sci-fi offerings as “Inception” and “Open Your Eyes” (the Spanish film on which “Vanilla Sky” was based). The story is captivating, and its translation to the screen is riveting, keeping viewers guessing how it will turn out right up until the end. The cinematography is excellent, beautifully showing off New York for the city that it is. Admittedly, the dialogue could have been a little stronger in some of the sequences, but the performances cover it well, especially those offered up by Bureau members Stamp, Slattery and Mackie.
I was a little surprised by the timing of this release. It could have easily been a summer blockbuster or possibly even a dark horse awards season contender. Sadly, with its debut at this time of year, it’s likely to be forgotten when it comes time to distribute accolades for 2011’s best. I’d like to hope that won’t be the case, given that this is a fresh, lively, satisfying offering (and a welcome one at a time of year when new releases often leave a lot to be desired).
Our ability to choose—and our awareness of that fundamentally important birthright—is something we often lose sight of. We frequently lament that we have no choice in the matters of our lives, that things are fated and beyond our control. “The Adjustment Bureau” provides some profound insights on such notions, that what we think of as free will may be far different than how we typically define it—and that it may offer us, for better or worse, far more than we ever thought possible.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.