The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

by John BruniThe Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau is based upon a short story by Philip K. Dick called the Adjustment Team [1], but the film bears little resemblance to the short story save for the film’s conceptual basis. Flexibility of this nature is a plus, because Dick’s sparse script leaves plenty of room for entertaining enhancements. This is not to say that the original short story isn’t good – it’s very good – just that director George Nolfi had plenty of maneuvering room to produce a good film. Essentially, the concept boils down to the question of whether or not people have free will. This isn’t nearly as simple to answer as one might think. The question has been touched upon by Greek philosophers who asked, “Is humanity powerless to change Fate?” and in more modern times by the church, which asks, “If God is omnipotent and all-knowing, this means He knows everything we will ever do before we do it. If this is the case, do we really have freedom to act or are we simply following a pre-ordained script?” Questions like these are Philip K. Dick’s specialty; he often delved into issues of free will, and he believed in God, who he saw as VALIS, or Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Dick came to this belief when a number of experiences convinced him that there was a hidden force intervening in his life.

Dick – and the film – postulates a world in which the lives and destinies of all human beings are totally controlled by hidden forces. Dick’s concept was influenced in good part by the dark days of the Cold War, a time where every action was scrutinized by the government even in the land of the free. Dick’s paranoia in the Adjustment Team story can be seen in his development of an all-knowing, all-pervasive power that shapes everyone’s life. In the years when he wrote the Adjustment Team - the mid-1950s - Americans worried that Big Brother was watching them. As it turned out, such fears weren’t completely unjustified: witness, for example, the widespread and illegal CIA spying on U.S. citizens known as Operation Chaos, revealed when journalist Seymour Hersh released a copy of CIA misdeeds known as the Family Jewels. Even grandfatherly President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided that ethics took second place in the fight against Communism, saying “some of our traditional ideas of international sportsmanship are scarcely applicable in the morass in which the world now founders.”[2] As history reveals, there was plenty of justification for the paranoia that Dick’s writings expressed.

The Adjustment Bureau delves into this gradually. Fans of The Matrix will be quite familiar with how The Adjustment Bureau establishes that reality is not what it seems. There are plenty of equivalents to the Matrix’s Agent Smith in this film, and main character David Norris, played by Matt Damon, begins to encounter them after he accidentally meets – and falls in love with - Elise Sellas, played by Emily Blunt. At the start of the film, Norris is a shoe-in for election as a U.S. senator, until exposure of a college mooning derails his campaign. The camera cuts to a shot of Harry Mitchell, played by Anthony Mackie, who tells an unidentified caller on his cellphone, “I’m working on it,” when asked, “Any ideas?” After Norris watches TV reports that include Mary Matalin, James Carville and Wolf Blitzer (there’s more than a few fun inclusions of TV news personalities and other famous people in the film), we see Mitchell again. He’s standing on a rooftop with three other mysterious men. One seems to be Mitchell’s boss, and he says, “Alright. Let’s get him back on track.” The person they’re planning to get on track turns out to be Norris.

After running into Elise in the men’s bathroom while mulling over his concession speech (see the film to find out why she’s there), Norris tosses out his prepared statement, making an impromptu speech that wins back his popularity, albeit after having already lost the election. The camera cuts back to the mysterious Mitchell and his boss, who tells Mitchell, “He has to spill his coffee on his shirt by 7:05.” Mitchell falls asleep on a park bench; Norris gets on a city bus, and Norris runs into – we know it’s at least a month later – Elise. Mitchell, who wakes up belatedly and runs after the bus, notices 7:05 has come and gone. Norris does indeed spill his coffee, but on Elise rather than himself. Mitchell is hit by a cab, survives, and looks at a mysterious notebook with writing that changes as he looks at it. Norris walks into an office, but fails to notice that everyone in it is frozen. Entering the boardroom, he finds Mitchell’s boss and a whole slew of mysterious agents doing strange things to the people – frozen – with whom he was supposed to meet. Norris flees but is overwhelmed by faceless cops and knocked out with a drugged handkerchief by Mitchell. Mackie, incidentally, plays his role as Mitchell quite well.

Norris awakens handcuffed to a chair in an empty parking garage with Mitchell’s boss, Richardson (John Slattery) discussing what to do with him. Another man tells Richardson, “there’s no way the Chairman approves a reset. This is your fault.” He also suggests that Richardson level with Norris. Norris asks, “who the hell are you guys?” and Richardson tells him, “We . . . are the people who make sure things happen according to plan.” Norris escapes from the chair, but much like the Matrix, Richardson points a finger at the floor and it bends up and trips Norris as he runs. He explains to Norris that by not spilling his coffee at the right moment, he screwed up the Agency’s plans, allowing him to walk in on a routine “adjustment” that he wasn’t supposed to see. Richardson also tells Norris that, if he reveals any of this, they will wipe his brain completely blank. He also tells Norris that he is never supposed to see Elise again. Richardson’s goons grab his wallet and remove the phone number Elise gave him. They then push Norris through a door in the garage that mysteriously opens back into the boardroom where his partners are, now acting normally and with no goons present.

Norris sits in a bar, trying to recall Elise’s phone number, and Mitchell shows up, introducing himself as “Harry.” He tells Norris the Agency can block any attempt at contacting Elise. Mitchell warns Norris that Richardson can reset him (turn him into a vegetable) if he talks, but tells Norris to meet him on a ferry later that day. Somewhat unbelievably, water blocks the ability of the Agency to monitor Norris, and Mitchell tells him a lot more of the truth while they’re on the boat. Norris asks if Mitchell is an angel, and he replies, “We’ve been called that.” He tells Norris to forget about Elise; it’s important to the Agency that they never meet again. Despite all odds, Norris runs into her again three years later, telling her he’s been riding the same bus every day for three years hoping to see her again. Richardson is promptly alerted and swings into action, mysteriously popping straight through an office door to the place where Norris and Elise are talking. The Agency proceeds to alter reality to head off trouble, but is concerned that if Norris and Elise kiss the problems this creates will be insurmountable.

At this point, Norris is well aware of the Agency’s interference. He parts with Elise, planning to see her again as soon as he gives a speech, but the place where she was due to perform a ballet has mysteriously been changed. Richardson tells Norris that meeting Elise three times was an accident, revealing that there is a chance for free will. The Agency hints that the Chairman, who wrote Norris’s life plan, is actually God. Despite all the Agency’s interference – including blocking all phone service for three blocks, both cellular and hard line – Norris finds where Elise is. Richardson gives up and “kicks it upstairs.” He learns from higher authorities that the Chairman’s original plan had Norris and Elise staying together, which is why he’s having trouble keeping them apart. The problem goes to a higher-up named Thompson (Terence Stamp), nicknamed “The Hammer.” Norris and Elise kiss and end up in bed. Afterward, while they sleep, “The Hammer” stands at the end of the bed. The next morning, Elise’s ex calls her four times, triggering Norris’s suspicions that the Agency is on the move again.

Angels?Norris and Elise are separated. Norris is pushed through a door and into the ubiquitous empty parking garage again, where Thompson, a.k.a. The Hammer, tells Norris the Agency tried free will and it caused the Dark Ages. The Hammer adds, “We needed to do a better job of teaching you [humanity] how to ride a bike before we took the training wheels off again.” Another attempt at giving humanity free will in 1910 ended, he says, with World Wars I & II and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here, we learn that Norris is scheduled to be President and Elise is slated to be a world-class ballerina, and that bringing the two of them together will disrupt this. The Hammer says he almost didn’t have the heart to tell Norris that Elise would end up “teaching dance to six-year-olds” if Norris continues to see her, and if Norris destroys her career he should remember that the Agency “tried to reason with you.” Norris takes Elise to the hospital when she twists her ankle while dancing, and then knuckles in to The Hammer’s threats and abandons her. The moment has the sulfur-smell of making a deal with the devil rather than God.

This review won’t divulge the contents of the last 32 minutes of the film. There’s no reason to ruin things for those who haven’t seen the film yet. It’s safe to say, the moment when Elise realizes she has been abandoned is heartbreaking. One wonders, if the Agency is so good at manipulating people’s lives, why can’t they re-write the life scripts of Norris and Elise to keep them together without destroying their futures? The film delves less deeply than it could into issues of predestination, one of author Philip K. Dick’s favorite themes, preferring to keep things light and entertaining rather than deeply metaphysical. However, there are hints that even the agents of the Agency have the ability to make decisions on their own, and the same appears to be true for Norris. Where this goes is for the viewer to learn; no spoilers here. Let’s just say a very worthwhile denouement takes place on a secret observation deck atop Rockefeller Plaza. (If you haven’t been there, you won’t recognize it; it’s one level higher than the tourist deck and mostly off-limits to the public.) In fact, the city is one of the hidden stars of this film, and as Matt Damon rightly says, the movie “will look like a love letter to New York.” If there’s any flaw in the film, it’s that Blunt doesn’t pull off the role of dancer as well as a real ballerina would, but this is a minor quibble. Only a true ballet aficionado would be likely to spot this. The Adjustment Bureau turned out to be a pleasant surprise – a good, entertaining film that moves along well, with fine chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Damon also soars in his roll as a very-likeable politician who has character and determination. If you haven’t seen The Adjustment Bureau yet, do so; you’ll find the film well worth your time. And, for those who watch the credit roll, note that The Chairman gets a mention at the end. Hmm, did Hollywood make this film, or was it destiny . . . . ?

[1] Those who wish to read the original story (now in the public domain) may do so by clicking here.

[2] Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, p. 202.

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