Movie Review - The Adjustment Bureau

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
George Nolfi
Universal Pictures
for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image

What does it feel like to be going through life as usual, thinking you’re master of your own destiny, and then suddenly discover that every single one of your actions and decisions were part of Someone Else’s plan for the world? In the real world, with the real God, it’s a feeling of excitement at realizing that your life counts for something bigger than just you—perplexity at trying to use a human brain to figure out the mechanics of God using our momentary choices for his eternal ends—awe at the magnitude of the plan—and peace at knowing that everything that happens, good or bad, has a purpose. That’s a bit of what it feels like in the real world. In the world of The Adjustment Bureau, it feels like all hell breaking loose.

Why the difference?

When the movie begins, David Norris thinks that his rise to fame in the political arena is strictly his own doing—that his plummet to runner-up in the election for Senator of New York is all owing to an immature act that got published in The Post—that giving an incredibly authentic concession speech that rocketed him back up to the top of the polls was a matter of personal inspiration—and that meeting that inspiration in the form of a wedding-crashing ballet dancer hiding from security in the men’s bathroom, was just chance. Meeting the charismatic Elise again on the bus—that’s the part that feels orchestrated; but according to The Adjustment Bureau, that’s the one significant thing in his life that wasn’t supposed to have happened.

As the audience, we already knew that a strange man in a hat had been posted outside David’s apartment with strict orders that David was supposed to spill his coffee on his shirt right before the bus came at 7:05. But Harry, David’s mysterious “case officer,” erred; David didn’t spill his coffee, he did catch the bus, he met Elise again, and he arrived at work ten minutes earlier than he should have—to find the entire office frozen in time, with storm troopers in black masks, and more “case officers” in suits and fedoras, reprogramming his colleague’s brain. And that was just the beginning.

The Adjustment Bureau raises some interesting questions—some gnawing questions, even at this point in the movie. Top of the list being “What will this movie say about God?” and “Is it worth enduring the slimy feeling you get from being subjected to four abuses of God’s name, an F-word, an obscene hand sign, ten instances of “sh-t,” a couple of “a--,” a plunging neckline, a microskirt, a weirdly passionate kiss, and a conversation with your main character about how crashing weddings and mooning your friends are no big deal (and so far we’re just talking about the first twenty minutes of the movie), in order to find out what The Adjustment Bureau’s perspective on God is?”

David learns, through the whole rest of the movie, what the Adjustment Bureau is, and Who they work for. But his first insight into their identity comes when they chase him down, beat him up, drug him, handcuff him, take him hostage, and threaten to erase his brain if he ever tells anyone they exist. His first insight is that they are the villains of the story. His second insight is that, when they have their hats on, they can use ordinary doors as portals to wherever they want to go, making it impossible to escape them. His third insight into the secret world of the Adjustment Bureau, is that its members can read his decision-making process like a user’s manual, and can alter reality with a flick of their finger based on that reading. The Adjustment Bureau is beyond human. And, by the way, they want him to give up Elise.

See, the job of case officers like Harry is to make sure things happen according to Plan. The Plan is the blueprint for life, when it comes to history. Sometimes, little things like spilling coffee or meeting attractive women in the men’s lavatory, are just chance. Sometimes, they’re the Adjustment Bureau, “nudging people back on Plan.” In the case of David’s colleague who was having his head lasered by the storm troopers, nudging wasn’t enough, so they called in the Intervention Team and adjusted his decision-making process—they changed his mind for him, so that history would continue to go the way the divine “Chairman” wanted it to. David’s part of the Plan was supposed to involve Elise insofar as she was the inspiration for that speech of his, but meeting her again has already caused “ripples” in the Plan—deviations that now have to be remedied by the Adjustment Bureau.

David doesn’t really care.

Now, hit the pause button. If you care about worldview, this story should already be screaming at you, loud and clear, and we haven’t even met the Chairman yet. The two most significant problems so far:
  • The Person running the universe is the villain in this movie—or at best his employees are; we won’t know for sure until the very end.
  • Not only can things happen that the Chairman of the universe doesn’t want to have happen; all it takes is for a case officer to doze off on a park bench to throw the whole Plan into jeopardy.
These two things, unless they’re resolved by the end of the movie, would be enough to ruin the idea of The Adjustment Bureau having anything significant in common with Christianity—all by themselves. So, the new gnawing question becomes, are they resolved?

It’s now three years later, and David hasn’t contacted Elise again—not because he’s afraid of the Adjustment Bureau, but because they burned the card that had her phone number on it. He doesn’t even have her last name. But he’s been riding that same bus every single day, hoping to meet her again. And, after three years—by Chance—he does.

The Adjustment Bureau, of course, is standing by with their hats and their Plan-books, neutralizing the power of Chance, “adjusting” reality here and there—ill-timed phone calls and the unexpected entrance of his campaign manager, to keep David from connecting too deeply with Elise before they’re forced to part; switched dance rehearsal locations, downed phone lines, and even a graphic car crash, to keep him from connecting with her ever again.

David, however, has the gift of improvisation—which means that his decision-making is too fast for the Adjustment Bureau to read it in time to stop him from finding Elise again and spending the rest of the evening with her… and the rest of the night… and the rest of the next morning. He’s not quite ready to let her out of his sight yet. But—for just a few minutes—he does. And a polite man in a hat comes in and tells Elise that David was suddenly called into a meeting and will have to catch up with her later. He then kindly helps David out by holding open a door for him… which suddenly becomes a portal to another part of the city, where David is again imprisoned by the Adjustment Bureau.

There is only one member of the Adjustment Bureau who is sympathetic to David and Elise’s forbidden romance, but he’s not bold enough to do anything about it until he learns that the reason why David and Elise feel like they were meant to be together, is that they were—in an earlier version of the Plan.

Three more blasphemies, seven “h-lls,” a couple of “d-mns,” four uses each of “sh-t” and “son of a b-tch,” a “b-stard,” multiple life-threatening traffic violations on David’s part, a joke about pole dancing and one sex scene into the movie, and at the one-hour mark, the worldview issues have more than doubled. Add these to the original two:
  • “Chance” is an active power, outside of even the Chairman of the universe’s control. The script goes out of its way to make this clear.
  • The history-guiding Master Plan changes all the time, because the Chairman’s earlier versions are defective.
  • Fornication—which is Biblically prohibited—is definitely portrayed as a good thing.
  • So far, our hero and his true love have exhibited a great deal of immaturity and ungodliness, and no depth of character at all, except in their steadfast commitment to fulfilling their own human passions.
So, are all of these problems resolved in the last forty minutes of the movie? Are any of them resolved?

When David is captured by the Adjustment Bureau that last time, one of the hostile case officers comes right out and states the movie’s perspective on history, evil and free will. Harry, the sympathetic case officer, gives David his hat and teaches him how to evade the other case officers in order to prevent Elise from marrying a man she doesn’t love—and, in the process, tells us the movie’s perspective on predestination and the Chairman’s real Plan. And, at the end, when David and Elise race against time to find the Chairman for themselves, we are told very simply and very clearly what The Adjustment Bureau really wants us to think about God.

Are the movie’s answers to those gnawing questions about worldview right or wrong? The short answer is that they’re dead wrong. In the last forty minutes, we get hit with a rapid escalation in both the number and magnitude of the worldview problems. Nothing is resolved. And you still have to go through another F-word, three blasphemies and a handful of PG-13 vulgarities to find that out.

This is what The Adjustment Bureau has to say, in sixteen points, in the last forty minutes:
  • History is an evolutionary process, with the most humanistic eras reflecting the positive influence of the Chairman.1
  • Right and wrong are determined by human passions. 2
  • The divine Chairman is the one who hasn’t seen the light yet, while humans knew better all along.3
  • The Chairman has to interfere to keep people as a group from being immature and evil, but to keep them as individuals from being as good as they truly want to be.4
  • The Plan is neither comprehensive nor precise.5
  • The Chairman—the (presumably eternal) Guide of the universe—is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.6
  • The Chairman’s Plan for the world is morally wrong.7
  • Human “freedom” is rebellion against the Chairman.8
  • Humans are supposed to be God.9
  • It would be wrong for the human mind and heart to be changed by the Chairman.10
  • Salvation is global, not individual.11
  • Intentionally devoting your life to the Chairman and the Plan is not the thing to do.12
  • The Chairman doesn’t want people to know about the Plan.13
  • Good people don’t need to be saved from anything… except the interference of the Chairman.14
  • David and Elise’s great moral test is not to see whether they will do what is right, but to see whether they will do what it takes to fulfill their human passions.15
  • The divine Chairman’s appearance, religious preference and gender are flexible.16

What do the Christian worldview and The Adjustment Bureau have in common? The same thing their views of sin and salvation have in common. It’s the same thing their perspectives on predestination, free will, and the providence of God have in common. Ultimately, they have in common whatever their beliefs about God have in common. And that is nothing.

When the movie ends, humanity has triumphed, David and Elise have persevered against the Chairman, they have inspired “him—or her”, and he/she/it has rewritten the Plan according to mankind’s better ideas, so that the two lovers can walk off into the end-credits together.

Do you know what Christianity affirms, in contrast with this? It affirms that in the end God will triumph over sinful humanity—and this will be good, in every sense of the word. God’s people will persevere against their enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil—through, not against, Jesus Christ. The eternal Plan is not fickle, is not faulty, and it works all things together for good for those—for the individuals—who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). Because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:29-30). Christianity affirms that the end credits of this world will leave all of humanity bowing to God’s wisdom, not the other way around. In contrast with The Adjustment Bureau, Christianity affirms that God is sovereign, that he is the savior of all believers, and that he is not a woman.

This movie is not worth the Christian’s time. The content is either defiling or desensitizing, depending on the individual; the worldview is completely antithetical to biblical Christianity, and after the first nine minutes it becomes ever-increasingly clear that the only way to enjoy watching The Adjustment Bureau is to put your Christian worldview on hold—or to not even notice the difference between what it feels like when you think about God’s Plan, and the feeling David got when he was racing through New York City to defeat the Chairman’s. If you want to understand the free will/predestination paradox better, try starting with the Bible. If you want a discussion-prompter, try starting with Romans 8 and 9. The Adjustment Bureau isn’t just not worth watching, it’s Worth Avoiding.

1 The starting point of the Plan is humanity’s “hunting and gathering” stage, and “the Roman Empire… the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution,” (eras characterized by moral decadence and the failure of God’s people to be leaders in the culture) are listed as the high points. Humanity is expected to “mature” over the centuries, with or without the Chairman.

2 Every action of David’s or Elise’s that would—Biblically—be considered sin, is portrayed as good. David’s reason for believing that his relationship with Elise “can’t be wrong” is that it makes him feel the way it does.

3 Ultimately the Chairman has to make the choice to either reject the humans’ idea (even though it’s clearly the smarter one), or be “inspired” by David and Elise’s example, undergo a change of heart, and rewrite the Plan so that they can be together. The Chairman comes over to the “right” side at the last moment, and chooses the latter.

4 The roughest spots in history are all blamed on the Chairman’s decision to turn humanity loose for a while. On the flip side, Harry confides that David’s deceased father and brother, who seemed to fail in so many ways, “could have been a lot more. Wanted to be… but the Plan didn’t call for it.”

5 The Adjustment Bureau claims outright that the details of what happens on earth are, except in rare cases, matters of complete indifference to the Chairman (implying that almost every sparrow in the world could fall to the ground apart from the Chairman). The Plan is full of generalizations, contingencies, close-calls and “risks”.

6 Unable to even foresee historical events like the rise of Fascism or David’s accidentally walking in on the Adjustment Bureau, the Chairman is completely at the mercy of limited knowledge. The Chairman is also described as being forced to step back into history to keep humanity from doing something unfixable to the planet. Again, the Chairman is powerless over the effects of Chance—like the death of David’s mother, for example.

7 Of course, in this movie, anything that doesn’t make David happy is considered morally wrong, and the Plan does not make David happy. All the good guys in the movie regularly question (until the end, when they come right out and deny) the morality of the divine Plan. Harry warns that those whose job it is to advance the Plan are “a threat.” We’re on David’s side—not the Chairman’s—in all the chase scenes.

8 Last lines: “Most people live life in the paths we set for them, too afraid to explore any other. But once in a while people like you come along, and knock down all the obstacles we put in your way. People who realize free will is a gift you’ll never know how to use until you fight for it.” Until you fight, Harry clearly means, against the Chairman.

9 The Chairman is said to regularly step back from history with the hope that mankind will have matured enough to achieve independence from the divine. Continuation of the last lines: “…free will is a gift you’ll never know how to use until you fight for it. I think that’s the Chairman’s real Plan. And maybe one day we won’t write the Plan—you will.”

10 The involvement of the Chairman “doesn’t work on emotion or personality. That’s too intrusive.” It would apparently be wrong for the Chairman to “adjust” David’s mind to give him a desire for the Plan or a love for the Chairman. This is in contrast to real-world regeneration, which is precisely a divine change of human minds and hearts—emotions and even, to some degree, personalities.

11 Seeing that nothing David or Elise does is considered sin in this movie, there is no apparent need for individual salvation. The Chairman is unconcerned with individual morality because the Chairman is ultimately unconcerned with individuals, but is very concerned when human evil goes global—especially when it reached the apex (worse than WWI or the Holocaust, the case officer says) of the notably-global, notably-nuclear Cuba Missile Crisis.

12 David and Elise have no more interest in knowing or serving the Chairman at the end of the movie than they had at the beginning. At the end, their greatest tie to the Chairman is their confidence that the Plan will now faithfully serve their ends. The trusting, serving case officers are the blind, hostile, unsympathetic ones.

13 Threatening to lobotomize David if he told anyone about the Plan was rather a strong hint that the Chairman wasn’t interested in spreading the news about it. David’s, and later Elise’s, awareness of the involvement of the Chairman in human history is portrayed as a necessary evil that ended up working out okay in the end. The Great Commission is out. Definitely out.

14 Everything David and Elise need to escape or be rescued from in The Adjustment Bureau is directly tied to unwanted interference from the Chairman. If the Chairman had stepped out after David first met Elise in the men’s bathroom, the movie would have ended the same way, only the movie wouldn’t have had a villain to overcome, would it?

15 There is no moral goal to their fight against the Chairman; only a search for earthly pleasure—from the beginning of the movie, to the very end.

16 When Harry enters with the new, improved version of the Plan and dismisses the hostile case workers, David asks if Harry is the Chairman, and Harry smilingly replies, “No. You’ve met him, though—or her. Everybody has. The Chairman comes in a different form to everyone, so people rarely realize when it happens.” The original script, according to director George Nolfi, ended with David and Elise actually meeting the divine Chairman… and finding out that the Chairman was female. This is why no one in the movie—or this review—refers to the Chairman by a pronoun. This, on top of the previous twenty-one serious worldview problems in The Adjustment Bureau, is why this review never refers to the Chairman as God. He/She/It simply isn’t.

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