The Adjustment Bureau

Humanism and Open Theism. I got a chance to see an advance screening of this theologically and philosophically rich film, so you’ll want to come back later after you’ve seen it. It does prove once again, along with the blockbusters The Matrix all the way to Inception, that you can tell a good story and make a good movie AND have a rich philosophical discussion as the essence of it all.

David Norris is an aspiring Senator in New York who loses his latest bid and in a fit of authentic honesty, admits that so much of politics is poll driven (by controlled research) and not from the heart. But then one day, we see strange men with hats who are following him and we learn they are from “the adjustment bureau” following the orders of the “Chairman” and are controlling David’s life, along with many others’ lives, or at least intervening at key moments to keep him on track with the Chairman’s plan for his life. They carry little books that show blueprint like pages with moving lines to show them directions of people’s lives as they are making choices.

One day, David is supposed to spill his coffee, but the agent who is supposed to cover him falls asleep and David does not spill his coffee, thus making it in time to a bus he was not supposed to be on, and thus having a second encounter with a woman he had fallen for in a chance encounter during his campaign. The thing is, according to the Chairman’s plan, they are no supposed to be together, so the rest of the movie is David pursuing this woman and the bureau agents trying to stop that from taking hold.

But when David spills his coffee he sets in motion a series of events that allow him to get out of the sight of the bureau agents, and he stumbles upon something he is not supposed to see: The agents are engaged in a “readjustment” by freezing everyone at David’s work and scanning their brains to make them change their minds and get back on course with the Chairman’s plan for them. When David sees them, lead Agent Richardson is in a predicament of having to explain to David the behind the scenes scenario. He then tells David that he must not get together with the woman, Elise, because it will ruin the Chairman’s plan for both of their lives. As it turns out, David eventually learns that the plans are for her to become a world class Ballet dancer and for David to eventually become president of the US, and both would do great good for people. But David does not understand why he can’t have both, and like Jacob fighting with the angel, he determines to make his own way in life with his free will and fight for Elise.

Though the movie judiciously avoids saying it explicitly, the metaphors are obvious, the agents are angels, and the Chairman is God. The entire struggle of this film is between free will and determinism, or predestination. Are we absolutely free to make our own way in this life or does God control everything? The view of the storytellers is Arminianism, and more particularly Open Theism. The Chairman has a plan for most everyone, but mostly very important people who will do great things. The rest of us are mostly on our own. So people have free will AND there are chance events that keep mucking up the Chairman’s (God’s) plan so God has to send angels to try to fix things to some degree to keep things on track. But there are not enough angels to do so, so there are quite a lot of things that get out of God’s control. One higher up explains to David that throughout history, God has tried to give man free will and he messes it all up so God takes control again to fix things. So, in this movie, God gave men over to free will and we had the Dark Ages, and then God took back control and we had the blessings of reason and the Enlightenment and Renaissance (The Reformation is studiously avoided), and then God gave free will back to us in 1910 and we had the World Wars, so now God is trying to fix it all again. This is exactly the viewpoint prejudice of the Enlightenment that created the derogatory term “Dark Ages” out of its antisupernatural bigotry.

This points to another theme of the movie, that ultimately the reasoning intellect of man is safe and in control (which is a parallel to the Chairman’s control), but the emotions of man are unpredictable and messy. So the battle between free will and determinism is also a battle between control and chance as well as a battle between the heart and the mind, or emotions and reason. They’re all linked. Thus, our hero is an impulsive man whose impulses get him in trouble in the story. But the real trouble happens when he learns that if he stays with this woman with whom he has fallen in love, they will both not meet their dreams, she will not become a famous dancer, but will end up a simple teacher, and he will not be president and help the nation. So his choice is: should he “follow the plan” and give up his dreams of love or should he pursue his dream and ruin both their potentialities for goodness in society? So for the sake of his love for her, he gives up their love and let’s her go, only to be haunted by that decision for years.

By chance, he stumbles onto her again much later, but by now, he has decided that he wants both. Why can’t they have both love and greatness? David’s original design to be a politician is revealed to come from his inner emptiness for meaning. He seeks the “love” of the masses to fill a hole that only true love can fill: Another humanistic theme – human love is the ultimate meaning in life. So David fights to stop Elise from marrying another man and to show her why he had avoided her all those years: Because of the angelic plan. But revealing the behind the scenes is a dangerous no-no, and David will have to have his brain erased, because they can’t have the secret get out.

With the help of a rebellious angel, David decides to grab Elise and make a run for it to the Chairman to plead his case. He never makes it, but his sheer “free will” for love has so impressed the God Chairman, that God changes his plans, and allows the two to be together. The last shot, we see the plan book, with the two moving lines of David and Elise moving out of the planned zone and into a white area of undetermined uncertain future, but we all know it is hopeful and free will gives us the hope of uncertain but unlimited possibilities

The problem with the scenario is that it is ultimately unsatisfying. The God of this film is unwittingly the best argument against the Arminian notion of absolute free will, by depicting a God whose will is so often thwarted by humans that he is virtually impotent, running around fretting over the mess that he cannot seem to keep up with. God here is the antagonist, the enemy that man must free himself from, much like The Truman Show. This God is not very all-knowing either, as he is the one who realizes his plan was wrong for David and Elise. Rather than David struggling with God and learning a lesson about meaning and purpose beyond himself, God is the one who learns a lesson from David that true human love is better than a deity’s plan, that people should make their own meaning instead of accept God’s meaningful intent for them. Also, it is the God of Open Theism that only knows the future in the way that a very intelligent being can know where someone is headed based on intimate knowledge of the way a person thinks and acts – but this foreknowledge is really an educated guess not actual foreknowledge.

This is Open Theism. This is not a satisfying deity that is worth worshipping. In fact, watching it makes one repulsed at the pathetic excuse for such a meddling, inferior, half-assed puppet master getting his strings tangled on the few puppets he is trying to manipulate. One can only think, “For God’s sake, if it’s all too much for you to maintain control, then get out of the way and let us try to make our own way in life.” And that is in fact what happens in the movie. God gets out of the hero’s way and lets him have his “freedom” to chart his course in an unknown uncertain future determined only by human “love,” NOT God’s purposes. This is the humanistic existential man telling God to let him alone to create his own meaning and purpose in life out of his own emotional desires. In this story, politics may appear to help people, but it is ultimately a form of control that is determined by polls and manipulation. So David’s redemption lies in giving up his dreams of politics for the sake of individual love, in the same way that God must do so.

The Sovereign God of the Bible may be in control of every sparrow that falls from the sky, but at least such omnipotent power also comes with a Shepherd’s loving promise that is worth trusting. At least this God can actually accomplish his promises to work all things out for the best, and maybe he knows a little more than me, and maybe the world does not revolve around me and my passionate desires. Maybe it’s not all about me, me, me

To be fair, there are resonances with many Biblical characters in this story. One is reminded of Job who complains to God for his misfortune; or Jacob who wrestles with God and won’t let go until he is blessed by God: or Moses who persuades God to change his mind about destroying the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness.

And yet, one cannot help but see the differences that make this deity a false idol of the one in the Bible. For we do not see a God who rebukes and humbles Job into submission, or the God who won’t let go of His purposes for Jacob. Nor do we see the God of Moses who changes his mind on the basis on his own glory, and who separated and destroyed the rebellious Israelites for the sake of a remnant.