The Adjustment Bureau
Distributor: NBC Universal
Release Date: March 3, 2011
Have you ever experienced one of those moments where everything fell into place? A car park space opening up at the precise moment you needed it? A timely message delivering the courage you needed? Being in the right place at the right time to meet the person you would spend the rest of your life with? Call it luck, fate or providence, human beings have a long history of attempting to explain extraordinary alignments. The Adjustment Bureau builds its story around the idea that there is a mysterious department responsible for managing just such events. But would its existence be a cause for alarm or a source of comfort?
The Adjustment Bureau is set in New York some time around the present. Matt Damon plays David Norris, a US Senate candidate who suffers a crushing electoral defeat. At the depth of his depression he has a chance encounter with ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) who inspires him to get back into the game. That, at least, was the Adjustment Bureau’s intention, the shadowy figures responsible for ensuring Norris and Sellas’ paths crossed. However Norris falls in love with the beautiful dancer and determines to pursue her. No amount of ‘adjustments’ by Bureau agents can dissuade him. When Norris finally becomes aware of the machinations taking place, he has to decide whether he will accept the fate selected for him, or fight to realise the future he desires.
The Adjustment Bureau is a ‘chess game’ plot where the hero pits his wits against a superior enemy in the hope of out-playing him in the end. Though much of the plot is surrendered to frantic chase scenes, it has excellent performances from Terrence Stamp and John Slattery as Adjustment Bureau enforcers. The film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story titled Adjustment Team. Dick’s pen is behind nine of the best science fiction stories to be translated to the big screen: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (that became Blade Runner), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (better known as Total Recall) and Minority Report, to name a few. Director George Nolfi has massaged the details of Dick’s story but ensured the author’s fascination with those things that make us human has survived. “Norris has a choice,” Nolfi says, highlighting what he believes is the key characteristic. “Does he listen to the hand of fate or does he follow his heart and go after her.”
And so emerges the crucial difference between Dick and Nolfi’s view of the universe. Dick’s hero, faced with the evidence of an overwhelming power that directs history, decides it is better to trust its wisdom rather than test his own. Matt Damon’s response is summarized in the film’s tag-line: Fight your fate. He makes it clear to Stamp’s Agent Thompson that he will not submit to any ‘wisdom’ that denies him the object of his affection:
Thompson: “If you truly love her, just walk away. If you stay with her, it not only kills your dreams, it kills hers.”
Norris: “All I have are the choices I make, and I choose her.”
Thompson: “Just remember. We tried to reason with you.”
Nolfi treats the Adjustment Bureau’s violation of free will as a travesty because Norris and Sellas’ love affair is not the only one going on. The film is in love with the supremacy of the individual and won’t allow any God-like organization to infringe upon it. The Adjustment Bureau attempts to distance its agents from direct references to God; Norris learns its agents are more like ‘case officers’ than angels. But there are enough allusions to an all powerful author responsible for the development of human history to let us know who we’re talking about. Dick had no such qualms. His operatives are dressed in white, inhabit a control centre far above the earth and are under the command of the ‘Old Man’, who possesses ‘faded blue eyes’ with ‘a deep, ancient mildness’ that makes other characters tremble. The science fiction author wanted his readers to consider the implications of living in a world where history was subject to an almighty being. In short, to understand their limitations. The ‘Old Man’ informs Dick’s hero:
“Now you know. The natural process must be supplemented – adjusted here and there. Corrections must be made. Our adjustment teams perform vital work … A staggering job. But it must be done. For the good of all. For your good.”
And Dick’s hero accepts that. But there is an even higher power that has to be obeyed in Nolfi’s Adjustment Bureau. No matter how many alterations take place, Norris and Sellas continue to be drawn back together. It is ‘love’ that will not allow the agents to succeed. But this all-powerful force ends up a thin mask for human autonomy, and ‘what I feel’ becomes the justification for ‘what must happen.’
However you view it, The Adjustment Bureau suggests human beings will have their history shaped by one force or another. The question is, in a world full of billions of individuals who must be allowed to have what they want, wouldn’t you actually prefer to have someone in control who was capable of guaranteeing what was best for all?