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FIRST-PERSON: ‘Adjustment Bureau’ raises spiritual questions

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Are we in charge of our lives, or are decisions made for us long before we consider them? Do we control our destiny, or do unseen forces manipulate it? These questions come directly from the press notes of the film “The Adjustment Bureau,” a romantic thriller starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

This proposition has been well represented throughout movie history. In 2002 similar themes were found in M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi thriller “Signs.” Using alien invasion as a metaphor for human fears, Shyamalan also asked: Are the details of life governed merely by happenstance, or are they part of a great plan? Written and directed by George Nolfi (“Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”), The Adjustment Bureau (PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image) examines this same intriguing topic, though more from a conspiratorial perspective wherein a governing “higher power” ultimately needs man’s correcting.

Damon plays ambitious politician David Norris, who by chance meets and quickly falls in love with a ballet dancer played by Blunt. Soon, he must defy the agents of Fate — a mysterious group of men known as case workers headed by an unfeeling and unseen force, who attempt to separate them. Pronouncing to David that he doesn’t see the “big picture,” Fate demands he deny himself in order to save mankind.

“I was interested in George Nolfi’s take on what control we have over our own lives,” Producer Chris Moore said. “I also loved that the material crosses a number of genres. There are thriller elements, action and a great love story — as well as a personal crisis about what you believe in and who are you going to be.”

Decades ago, legendary filmmaker Michael Powell probed the same proposition in his romantic fantasy, “Stairway To Heaven.” Powell’s film, like Nolfi’s, worked on our romantic impulses, but was careful not to suggest that God was a distant and uncaring force. Powell’s protagonist eventually sought a Higher Power’s grace rather than suggesting we have a fallible Creator. The spiritual significance of The Adjustment Bureau, on the other hand, is somewhat muted as the makers tend to approach the free-will debate on an oppositional platform, feeling no disposition to reverence God. Damon seems to enjoy roles that contain an antagonistic activism against authority. This can be perceived as a positive aspect of his moral makeup when addressing man’s governing powers, but can be construed as somewhat presumptuous, even blasphemous, when accusing our Heavenly Father of being a cosmic bully.

Of course, the filmmakers would argue that they aren’t talking about God or angels. Everyone interviewed at the recent press junket was purposely vague as to who or what this higher power actually was.

Nolfi spoke about the members of the Fate squad: “They’re an expression of a higher power, so it’s not like a government agency that doesn’t want you to do something. They have powers that go way beyond what the earthly powers of an intelligence organization would be. They set us on the course that we are supposed to be set onto so we will follow the grand scheme, or the grand plan. To them they just work at a bureau. They might as well work in the IRS; they’re just doing their jobs.”

OK, but in the film, there is this all-knowing force overlooking mankind, he has representatives with limited power who intercede on man’s behalf, and the film deals with free will, an element of human existence that can only be given by a higher being. Only the most secular among us can assume these creatures are similar to IRS employees.

Those of us who believe the verses found in Philippians 4:19 and Hebrews 4:16, both lessons assuring that our Creator is a caring, giving God moved by our entreaties, have yet to find a major studio release that addresses free will and heavenly intercession from an unabashed spiritual perspective. Most filmmakers prefer a humanistic approach, often making God a supporting character more in need of discipline than mankind.

Because of this implied irreverence, will The Adjustment Bureau be completely dissatisfying for the Christian moviegoer? There was a mix of admiration and frustration among my colleagues concerning both the film’s theme and emotional tones, causing lively exchange. And that’s the film’s strength — it leads to discussion. Damon is a winning actor, Blunt is convincing in any role, and writer/director Nolfi keeps his narrative compelling, the action lively. Added to this, there is that interesting concept — would God ever take away our free will? If discontented with movies unclear in their ecclesiastical perspective, this one may also be found lacking. In its defense, the film contains two elements that make a film stand out — it has a potent love connection and it makes you think.

This is a pedigree film. Everyone involved has either won an Oscar or someday will. It’s photographed by two-time Oscar®-winner John Toll (“Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart”), the score is done by Grammy-winning composer Thomas Newman (“WALL•E,” “Revolutionary Road”), Blunt received great notices for “Young Victoria,” Damon won an Oscar for his co-writing of “Good Will Hunting” and gave a masterful supporting performance in “True Grit,” and production designer Kevin Thompson did the production designing for “Duplicity” and “Michael Clayton.” They’re the cream of the crop.

It is difficult bringing spiritual matters to the screen, especially by a committee of moviemakers unwilling to relay a message from a biblical perspective. The best they can achieve is to generate discourse. This, George Nolfi and his case workers achieve. And despite its creators, the thriller reminds us to search for the truth in God’s Word.
“The Adjustment Bureau” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. It includes around 15 obscenities and one profanity and one sexual situation. For a detailed review, visit previewonline.org March 4. Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for Baptist Press and is the author of “Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad,” available on Amazon.com. He also writes about Hollywood for previewonline.org and moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright