The Adjustment Bureau does precisely what good cinema is designed to do: raise questions without providing answers. I know that some people like to go to the movies to get their expectations satisfied. It is the only way to account for some interminable romantic comedies and, frankly, most of what is called "Christian cinema." But this is not what film does best.
Good films take you to places, sometimes dangerous places, in order to confront you with questions. As anyone who has ever peppered a director at a press conference can tell you, answers are often in short supply – on purpose. The most common response to the question, "But what does it all mean?" is "Well, what does it mean to you?"
Some people imagine movies as a monologue, where patrons sit in seats and let the film wash over them. In fact, films are more like dialogues, where each viewer brings his or her own life experiences and presuppositions, interacts with the questions raised in the film, and comes away, to a lesser or greater degree, changed by the encounter.
I have called The Adjustment Bureau this year's Inception, because, like Inception, it keeps the viewer guessing, demanding that answers come from the audience, not necessarily from the film. If heated discussion follows a screening, so much the better. Arguing for rival interpretations of a film helps to clarify one's own view, while remaining open to the alternative experiences of others. We talk.
I could pose a dozen or more questions that occurred to me while watching The Adjustment Bureau. Instead, I will focus on four and leave readers to discover others for themselves. But I think I can confidently predict that there is unlikely to be another film this year that will match The Adjustment Bureau in the sheer weight of the questions with which viewers are left to grapple.
Predestination or Free Will?
David Norris is an up-and-coming politician, the clear favorite to win the New York race for the U.S. Senate. But the campaign implodes at the last minute. While crafting his concession speech in a convention hall men's room, David is startled to discover that he has been overheard by a woman hiding out in a stall. Elise is beautiful, an accomplished ballet dancer. They talk. They kiss. She leaves. But this encounter inspires David to transform his stock "congratulations to my opponent" speech into a political barn burner filled with honesty and passion. Reinvigorated, David seeks out his muse only to find his journey blocked at every turn by a shadowy group of men in long coats and fedoras.
David discovers – though he was not meant to – that these men are a part of The Adjustment Bureau. They are supernatural "case workers," whose job it is to make sure that everyone follows "the plan" designed by their unseen boss, The Chairman. The leader of the group assigned to David is Harrison -- a sharp-talking guy who would be at home in a Sam Spade movie.
Harrison tells David that human free will is largely an illusion. People are constantly being nudged, pushed, or even reprogrammed by the Bureau to keep them on the path. But David experiences his life as made up of real choices that have real consequences. In fact, he is trying to make a free choice now by pursuing Elise despite the Bureau's interference.
Questions of free will and predestination are as old as philosophy and theology. The Stoics in ancient Greece argued for predestination and fatalism, while Aristotle argued for free will and the idea that events were contingent upon human choices and, therefore, could not be accurately predicted. Within the Church, the question of whether God universally predestines all events in general and individual salvation in particular has raged for centuries.
Has God predetermined all of the details of unfolding history, or does He allow for people to make real, free-will choices within the obviously-limited spheres of their life span and material existence? Answers to this question affect the way people view God, personal responsibility, the ability to change, and even to choose. With the theology section in most Christian bookstores decimated to make room for "lifestyle" books about how to shine at work or have a successful marriage, it is unsettling that it takes a Hollywood movie to get people to confront such significant questions – the answers to which will provide the presuppositions for many of their subsequent actions.
But perhaps even more fundamental than whether God does or does not allow free will to humans, is the question about the nature of such a God.
God: Sorta-potent Tyrant or Whimsical Trickster?
The "god slot" in The Adjustment Bureau is filled by The Chairman. Initially, The Chairman seems to act like a bully, pushing and pulling people into obedience to his minute, detailed plans. Other times, he appears to enjoy playing with his people, opening up opportunities for them to act.
David asks his "case worker"/guardian angel Harrison Mitchell point blank about the identity of the Chairman. "It's just a name we use. You people use many other names" is the answer he receives. As in most Hollywood offerings, the director is loath to make any clear spiritual commitments. As a result, viewers are freed to read their own theology into the story.
One of the problems posed by allowing considerations of human free will is what degree of sovereignty and power to attribute to God? If humans are free to act, can we act in contradiction to God's will? If God is omnipotent, why does He allow evil in the world, and how can humans contravene that will? The Adjustment Bureau, again, does not provide answers – it just evokes the questions. All of which lead thoughtful viewers to contemplate the nature of God and our relationship to Him.
The story argues that The Chairman appears to different people in different ways. To Christians, this might suggest theophanies: how God appeared to the Hebrews in the Old Testament, the pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus as the Angel of the Lord, and the Christ who hides Himself from His followers on the road to Emmaus. But I think that most audience members will take the seemingly more comfortable (and certainly less confrontational) route that argues that all religions worship, ultimately, the same God in different forms.
Taking a page out of Greek mythology (or at least from Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey), The Adjustment Bureau also winks at the idea that God may be – to some degree – sporting with us, a trickster. Depending on how you read the film, God may be on David's side, and against His own Bureau. He does seem to keep them hopping. The Chairman's plans are malleable – they occasionally get rewritten, and sometimes people have to have their lives erased and rebooted to get everything (relatively speaking) back on track. Keep an eye out for some sun imagery that might indicate that The Chairman is taking a personal interest in the unfolding action on both sides of the supernatural divide.
What the film ignores, but nearly begs the viewer to discuss, is the concept of Revelation. Like the first-century Athenian waiting for the Apostle Paul to speak on Mars Hill, the characters in The Adjustment Bureau (and many viewers, by extension) appear content to worship at the altar to an unknown god. They are groping through a theological universe in hope of encountering the transcendent. What they lack is revelation – the act by which God makes Himself known to His creatures. It is only when God directly reveals Himself that we have any hope of really knowing Him. What Christians can bring to the discussion is the knowledge of a self-revelatory God who really does have plans for us.
Should We Fight God?
The premise of The Adjustment Bureau is that The Chairmen has a plan – a really good plan, too. In fact, when David questions the plan, Harrison is flabbergasted, "Do you know who wrote it? Show a little respect!"
And yet, the movie only works if the viewer is rooting for David to pull off the free will coup of the millennium: to successfully express his own will, contradicting the plan of The Chairman, and over the incredibly intrusive objections of His ministering angels. Should David succeed, the only conclusions that would remain are either The Chairman does not know what is best, or that He lacks the power to enforce His will. Or, of course, it might just be that His will is really to lead the humans to freely choose.
For answers, we have to turn back to the free will/sovereignty dilemma. Is it possible that God, in His sovereignty, grants to His creatures free will? Under such a presupposition, in His fatherly love, He does indeed have good plans for us, but He grants us the ability to refuse to follow so that obedience is voluntary rather than coerced. But the fact remains, if there is such a good and loving God, and He has revealed His plan for human life, should we be applauding a character whose purpose is to fight against it?
Is There Something Behind the Curtain?
All of this presupposes a supernatural world that operates below the threshold of material awareness. Western culture is awash in scientific materialism, but the lure of films such as The Adjustment Bureau continues, unabated. Intuitively, we know that there is more to the world that what we can see. The hubris of scientism is that it cannot admit the truth of anything that will not submit itself for examination on scientism's terms. The idea that God might not choose submit is grounds, in the mind of the materialist, for dismissal.
A troubling aspect of The Adjustment Bureau is the suggestion that the purpose of the tests of life is the transcendence of humanity to the point where they can write their own "plan" without the need for a guiding God, or his Adjustment Bureau minions. As Christopher Lasch points out in The True and Only Heaven, the concept of progress was birthed in Judeo-Christian eschatology – the idea that the world began and is inexorably moving toward its conclusion. Scientific materialsts have taken the idea of progress and stripped it of its theological presuppositions, leaving only the idea of perpetual betterment and a coming utopia (though ironically it is always, as C.S. Lewis noted, "just around the corner"). The Adjustment Bureau takes a middle path, viewing God as the invisible hand guiding some to self-awareness and spiritual independence. And while this feeds many people's dreams of human triumph, it is not borne out in history or the Scriptures.
Bad Theology Invites Good Theology
The Adjustment Bureau is a good thriller and a compelling love story. And most pastors would sacrifice their right arms to create the kind of theological tension, and subsequent discussions and epiphanies, that this film might evoke. Ultimately, it would be great to see good theology up on the screen. But cinematic theology, under the right circumstances, is like publicity. In Hollywood they say "there is no bad publicity." I would argue that as long as there are theologically astute people willing to engage, that even bad theology on the screen can be turned to good theology in discussion. So if The Adjustment Bureau misses the mark of orthodoxy – and I think that it purposefully does – it still perfectly performs the best function of film: it raises questions and challenges comfortable assumptions about the most important questions of life. And you can't really ask for more than that.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to email@example.com