Monday, November 7, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Has No Idea What It's Talking About

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

We're what you call 'Angels', folks. (image ©, 2011)

Writer-Director George Nolfi’s 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau promised big things in its advertisements.  Statements like “If you believe in free will…” pounded on screen while images of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt running from some seeming MIB agents flashed by.

Although I admit that I was turned off by what seemed a superficial pander to an omnipresent human desire (free will), I was nonetheless interested in seeing the film, and what it would make of the whole ‘free will’ dilemma.

Well, the bottom line: I was entertained, but unimpressed.

A quick overview of the plot runs thus: David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young, successful, ‘voice of the people’ type politician.  Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) is a talented, aspiring dancer who has yet to make it big.  Both are single.

The two have a chance encounter in a bathroom (it’s not as creepy as it sounds, I promise), and they really hit it off—although Elise is forced to flee before either can exchange contacts.  However, David and Elise are able to see each other again, and all seems destined for a feel-good rom-com.

But “The Adjustment Bureau” (a secret, supernatural-ish organization made up of angels who look like corporate bigwigs, headed by “The Chairman”—i.e. God—designs people’s fates, and ensures that each fate happens according to plan) doesn’t want David and Elise to wind up happily ever after; it seems that the two of them aren’t destined for one another, in a very real sense, and that their falling in love actually is a violation of their respective destinies.

Eventually—through chance circumstance—David is becomes aware of “The Adjustment Bureau”, and the fact that “The Chairman” doesn’t want him and Elise to be together.  Thus, a certain quandary develops: should David follow the destiny that’s been properly set out for him, or should he seek his own? 

Of course, he seeks his own.  And those wonderful chase sequences ensue.

Now: The Adjustment Bureau is generally entertaining.  Its concept is fresh and mildly stimulating, some of its imagery is cool, Emily Blunt is fantastic (she manages to be sensitive, willful, and dignified all at once.  There’s a quiet beauty about her).  So, overall, the movie’s worth a watch.

And yet, there are many, many things wrong with it.  The way it visualizes and animates abstract, supernatural forces is ridiculous, many characters are overdrawn, a lot of the dialogue is cheesy, Matt Damon is annoying as hell (but really, when is he not?), the plot becomes overly intricate and contradictory, etc.

However, I’m going to focus on one fundamental aspect in which the film fails: its confusion about—well, the whole free will thing.

The Adjustment Bureau overtly deals with this conflict between free will and fate.  It reminds me of the innate contradiction many of us carry around: we want to have freedom, and to have the right to make our own choices; and yet, simultaneously, we want to feel taken care of—that ‘God’ or whatever you want to call it has a plan for us, and in the end, we’ll all wind up on the right track.  We desire freedom, and yet we desire fate (at least the good, this-person-is-destined-to-be-my-lover, kind).  And this film tries to draw a middle path, with its resolution being something along the lines of: God (“The Chairman”) has a plan for you, but if you come up with a better one yourself, then maybe God will be ok with it.

Now, before I dig too deeply into the movie’s conceptions of free will and fate, I’m gonna give you all a brief primer on the meaning of free will and fate (more academically deemed determinism).

Free will, essentially, is the belief that an individual has power over his/her present actions.  It’s the belief that you are free to pursue your own will, and that this will, moreover, is self-created and self-motivated, and not placed upon you by any higher power, or anything out of your control.

For instance, imagine that you are in an Olive Garden (God forbid) trying to decide between spaghetti and lasagna.  Now, if you truly have the ability to choose either the spaghetti or the lasagna—meaning that there’s no destiny, nor genetic determinance, nor socialization inescapably boxing you into one of the two—then in making your choice, you are exerting free will.

Fate, or determinism, is just the opposite.  It’s the view that, because of destiny, or because your genetics or socialization inescapably foster who you are, in the end, you have no freedom in the choices you make, and thus no control over yourself in any real sense.

So, re-imagining our Olive Garden situation above, a determinist would say that, although you might choose either the spaghetti or the lasagna, your choice of either one or the other is entirely out of your hands, and in a sense, is made before you even show up to the restaurant.

Ok.  So there’s the brief overview: free will is an individual’s power to choose otherwise, while determinism necessitates an individual’s choice being inextricably tied-down and out of his/her control.

So how does The Adjustment Bureau treat what it calls free will, and what it calls fate?

Well, obviously, the “Bureau” itself is supposed to be a symbol of fate.  But this isn’t so.  Why?  Because the movie never really stops to consider what true fate means: true fate, as I discussed, means that an individual has no power to choose otherwise.  It’s akin—in the sense of destiny—to God playing both ends of a chess board, and moving all the pieces (humans) around howsoever He wills.

But David does have the ability to choose otherwise.  Thus, he must have free will.  Thus, the “destiny” that the agents mean to protect isn’t really a destiny at all; since David has the power to simply disregard it, then it doesn’t ‘define’ him at all; he isn’t ‘destined’ to do anything.

What The Adjustment Bureau insists on calling “destiny” is really just coercion.  It’s more like “Hey buddy, if you don’t listen to what the Big Fella (God) says, then he’s gonna break yours and all your cousins’ legs (annihilate you)”.  Real destiny would mean David never even had the opportunity to make a choice different from the plan; in fact, it would be logically impossible for him to break from his destiny at all, since he would just be a mindless chess piece moved entirely at God’s will.

Therefore, although The Adjustment Bureau makes interesting, literary, quasi-stimulating attempts at discussing and breaking through the free will vs. fate argument, it’s mostly just lazy and illogical in how it treats the dilemma; thus, its fundamental premise is flawed.  And as such, the movie itself is fundamentally, inescapably flawed.



  1. Stimulating review, Paul. The film does trivialize the tension between freedom and free will, although a nod to the filmmakers for addressing such a topic in the first place. I rather like the sense of fate or destiny that I got when I first read the religious existentialists... that which does not hold man in leading strings, but awaits his own discovery.

  2. Excuse the typo in the comment above, meant to say the film trivializes the tension between fate and free will... a goof made entirely on my own, I suppose.

  3. I agree, Dad. And your liking of the sense of fate or destiny, while at the same time enjoying the concept of freedom is just the type of contradiction that I think we are all prone to.

    And it's indeed good that they address complex topics at all, but still I wish they'd do so with a full rigor and understanding of what it is they're doing.

  4. Am prone to think that the contradiction lies as much in our assumptions and definitions of the concepts as much in the inherent tensions and polarities to be handled, although they are there to be sure. There are some practical understandings of destiny that are hard to dismiss, while there are obvious examples of freedom and choice. Look forward to our continuing conversations. Agree it would be good if the filmmakers had dealt with more fully.

  5. Hmm. Well--if you define destiny in the usual sense (an unalterable plan laid out outside of one's control), and you define free will in the usual sense (the ability to alter a decision), then I think they necessarily contradict each other.

    If there's an alternate definition lurking, however, then don't hesitate to let me know.

  6. You may not find it surprising that I hold to the view that there is a natural order to things, and that part of that natural order is that people may accept or reject that natural order--if even sometimes at their peril. For example, choosing to drive a car off a cliff will have fateful (and usually fatal) consequences. On the other hand, bad consequences may not always be the case of choosing another way. Love and grace may be transcendent. For example, children who are not loved by their parents will have their lives irrevocably affected--in a plain sense, they are destined to be affected in one way or another--even amongst those who transcend the cycle of poor parenting and grow up as loving parents themselves. In that instance, was it their simple destiny to love? Did they simply choose to love? Did they somehow recognize and accept some inherent capability to love and then by some combination of choice and grace come to enact it, regardless or in spite of past circumstances? Rilke says it this way, in his wonderful Letters to a Young Poet: "Do not be bewildered by the surfaces; in the depths, all becomes law… And those who live the secret wrong and badly (and they are very many), lose it only for themselves and still hand it on, like a sealed letter, without knowing it."

  7. Well, the point I'm making, I guess, is that destiny in the common sense isn't merely a sense of natural order, or underlying law to the universe. Rather, it's the belief in a fixed, unalterable future.

    So let's take your example: If a kid who's not loved by his/her parents has the ability to either (a) find a love him/herself, or (b) fail to find a such a love, then that person is not acting under a predestined system, or a system of fate.

    That's the whole point I tried to make in the article. Determinism and Fate really means determinism. And almost everyone at some point in his/her life desires to live in utter destiny (in the sense of love, for instance), for that means that he/she doesn't have to ever worry about being lonely, because in the end, his/her happiness is fated for him/her--it's inescapable.

    But as such, to live in this system would mean living in a system without freedom (because your fate is inescapable). Meaning, there's no choice involved at all, there's no possible way to change it.

  8. I get your point, and I don't disagree that may be a customary definition of destiny. But, in the end, I think there is more here. Take Thoreau's words at Walden, speaking of deliberate choice but also of what constitutes life prior to a choice being made: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately... I did not want to live what was not life, living is so dear." There are some things that are deep inside of us--God given if you were--that we can choose to summon up or not. When we choose to find a love for ourselves, that choice, in my experience when it is deepest, has a yielding quality to it; we speak in fact of "falling" in love, we yield to it. That, I would maintain, is an entirely different kind of submission than the submission to an entirely foreign or external authority, separate from our inner life or being. Now, one may choose to live one's whole life pursuing things "freely" without reference to the demands of one's inner life. Our society is riddled with this. But this in my view has the quality of being inauthentic, that is, without the authority of the inner voice, leaving us, ironically, not truly being authors of our own lives. I suspect old Thoreau would agree.

  9. There's one thing I particularly did not like about this movie. I did not see the connection between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt's characters. I felt like they were together in one moment and then all of a sudden they're drawn to each other and can't live without each other. I just didn't see enough development of a relationship between them. So, I think the movie failed in that aspect. I do, however, agree about the free will/fate aspect. If the Adjustment Bureau had true control over David's life, his fate if you will, then he wouldn't have been able to deviate from that "plan" or even contemplate it. It's possible that the intention was to demonstrate a certain measure of balance between free will and fate in the world, but if that were true, it wasn't explicit or suggested in the movie. So, that's one other thing that could have been improved.
    Anyway, that's my two cents. Well written review, Paul. Interesting and insightful.