The new Matt Damon thriller, The Adjustment Bureau, is a meditation on free will, with chase scenes. My attitude toward the film shifted between the opening moments of action and the final moment, when I got into my car. I started out thinking, Preposterous but cool! I unlocked my Honda thinking, I just saw the story of my life. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose dystopic fiction was also the basis for Blade Runner, this is a film that will engage a theologian and enrapture a romantic. I guess I’m on the side of the romantic.
Damon plays John Norris, a Congressman running for U.S. Senator who falls in love with a rising modern dancer (Emily Blunt). But their falling in love is not part of “the plan,” or so Norris is informed by a cadre of male messengers all looking like refugees from “Mad Men” in fedora hats: cool, crisp, retro. The messengers carry with them a sort of animated playbook representing a person’s life and the choices that person makes; and they report to someone they refer to as The Chairman, with an efficient, not devotional, skyward glance. Clearly in control of human lives, they are angels in a universe run by a pragmatic God who does not think man capable of free will.
Mid-movie, one of the messengers explains that The Chairman once allowed man freedom of choice—during the Middle Ages—but He realized that humanity was not ready for it. Free will was taken away during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, then restored to us at the dawn of the 20th century. What did we moderns do with it? World War I. The Gulag. World War II. The Bomb. Et cetera. So we are back under His thumb, and the messengers intervene anytime we go off plan, as they do in Norris’s case. It turns out that The Chairman has big plans for Damon’s character, plans that conflict with the deepest desires of his heart.
The theology of The Adjustment Bureau, then, is not quite Catholic, but interesting enough to launch a five-hour discussion over beer and skittles. (What about obedience, or man’s fundamental disobedience in the Garden? Where does that fit in?). There is, however, another way for a filmgoer to read the messengers.
As I unlocked my car in the cinema parking lot, I literally had a flashback. That—what I just saw in that movie—happened once in my life, just take away the fedoras and the incredibly cool doors. Doors? See the movie. The flashback? I once fell in love—once, I say, because the woman I fell in love with was my future wife, and I have never loved anyone as I loved and still love her. But during our courtship, there were friends, authorities, messengers surrounding us who believed and made it clear that Webster-plus-Katie was not part of “the plan.” We weren’t “right” for each other. There were those who had other plans for one or both of us. I know that if I hadn’t burned with a desire that I now recognize as true and heaven-sent, I might have listened to the messengers and gone back to their playbook.
John Norris is different, one of the messengers notes, because “questions will burn in him until the day he dies.” In the end what trumps all, even the messengers, is human desire: Norris’s for Emily and vice versa. Angels have no bodies, after all. The Adjustment Bureau may have its theology on upside down, but its heart is in the right place.