The Adjustment Bureau – Day Four – #40movies40 days
I chose The Adjustment Bureau as my next movie because it was a WGA screening and I was mildly curious about it. I wasn’t particularly keen to see it because I thought it was another one of those– you never know what is real, or a dream, or a dream within a dream, or madness and the ending is ambiguous because you don’t know if something actually happened, or if someone dreamed it happened, or if it was a mad delusion that didn’t happen at all. I know this kind of story is all the rage right now but it strikes me as exemplifying the difference between complex and complicated.
I love movies that are complex and morally ambiguous– movies that require me to figure out where I stand in a story where there are no clear answers and only hard questions. I am liking less and less movies that are complicated and ambiguous in a way that is frustrating and requires me to puzzle out the logistics of a situation rather than consider the essential humanity (or inhumanity) of a character.
So I was worried The Adjustment Bureau was a movie in that complicated and logistically ambiguous zone. In fact, that’s not the case at all. Although the movie has many flaws, at it’s heart is a hard human question. Before you read further PLEASE NOTE– SPOILERS below.
The story opens on David Norris (Matt Damon), a young charismatic politician who is losing an election because of a youthful college prank. A photo resurfaces, makes headline news and destroys his narrow lead . He retreats to the men’s room in the election night hotel headquarters to practice his concession speech.
Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) is hiding in the men’s room to escape the security guards who threw her out of a wedding she crashed. Elise overhears David’s muttered speech and urges him to tell the truth instead of repeating the carefully parsed words provided by his pollsters. The security guards give chase and Elise flees without telling David her name. David goes on stage, begins delivering the same old speech, then throws away his notes and gives an honest ad hoc speech that launches his next Senate bid.
On his way to work, long after the election, David is supposed to be intercepted and delayed for ten minutes. Instead, he meets Elise again on the bus. They emotionally reconnect and she gives him her first name and telephone number. The delay never happens and David arrives at work on time.
In the office, he witnesses someone being “adjusted.” There are weird electron wands, men in futuristic Swat Team attire and other mysterious men in hats and somber grey suits. David is shocked, runs and is chased down. A door in the top-floor office opens and suddenly he is in a locked underground parking garage.
When he is captured in the garage David learns about the adjustment bureau. The non-human bureau (beings with special powers) keeps people and situations “on plan.” This plan is created by the “chairman.” According to the plan, David was supposed to meet Elise once, be inspired to give his speech and then lose track of her. Instead, by chance and administrative screw-up they reconnect.
David is told he will win his next election and four more. He may never mention the existence of the bureau to any one ever and he must forget about Elise. A bureau member destroys her phone number. David tries to remember the number later. Another bureau member appears and David is told that even if he does remember the number, his call will be dropped, the phone will be busy or the number will have changed.
David refuses to give up. He rides the same bus route (where he met Elise) at the same time every day for three years. He is constantly searching for her wherever his day takes him. One day, he finally spots her walking along the sidewalk parallel to the bus route. David jumps off the bus and tells her he was mugged, his wallet taken and her number was destroyed. He’s tried Google and everything he could think of but couldn’t locate her.
It turns out Elise founded a small dance company and was engaged to her brilliant choreographer. She broke off the engagement after she met David. The two are in love and believe they are meant to be together. More chases and more revelations about the adjustment bureau ensue.
The story boils down to this– David is told he will be president and will be in a position to do much good, but only if he lets go of Elise. Elise will become a famous dancer and an important choreographer, but only if she and David don’t reconnect. If they stay together, she will wind up teaching dance to six year olds in a small studio somewhere. By pursuing her, David will not just destroy his dreams but hers as well. David leaves Elise in the hospital, where she is recovering from a sprained ankle. David watched her dance and she fell (to prove the bureau’s point).
Fast forward, David is in the final leg of his flourishing Senate campaign. He is so far ahead even he can’t screw up his lead. Then David reads in the paper that Elise is set to marry her previous fiancee, the choreographer. David abandons he campaign stop and rushes to Elise.
One of the bureau members takes pity on David and explains he was told a half truth. David finds out that the death of his father and brother were orchestrated by the bureau to create an emptiness in him, a hole that David kept trying to fill by public applause and the warmth of the political limelight. The real reason the bureau wants to keep David and Elise apart is that if they have each other, they will have “enough.” Their emptiness will be filled and they won’t have to substitute the drive for material, political or artistic success for love.
Much has been written about who the Adjustment Bureau is– are they angels and is the “chariman” God? Let’s look at what the bureau does– it creates a hunger in people that can be directed to fulfill the bureau’s purpose. The adjustment team dangles the promise of doing good in front of David when, in order to win, David goes back to his same campaign manger and presumably the same or better pollsters. David is taught to be just authentic enough to convince people to vote for him. A few good works will be buried in a mountain of compromises. The bureau dangles the promise of fame to Elise but the price is an unhappy loveless marriage. (The fiancee loves her but she is deeply unhappy about marrying him). That sounds very much like the “glamor of evil.”
The bureau uses a time-proven strategy fueled by fear– fear of not having enough, not being enough or not leaving enough of a legacy. It tries to convince David that political power (even though he knows he is the bureau’s puppet) is worth more than love. It argues that teaching dance to six year olds is a failure and is too high a cost to pay for love and commitment. The bureau fears a love that is so strong and so fulfilling that it is “enough.” They cannot allow a love that is so satisfying that it leaves no desperate hunger left to fill. The bureau offers the choice between love and fear.
How much is “enough” for me? How much is contentment, gratitude and balance worth in my life? How fast do I have to run? What would happen if I slowed down? Am I fueled by fear- not having enough, not being enough, not leaving enough behind? Or am I fueled by love– being with the people I love and doing only those projects I love?
It’s strange how all four of these randomly selected movies, movies I didn’t know all that much about, all seem to have something profound to say about this Lenten journey.
In my view of things The Adjustment Bureau is a Power of Ambition movie. As such it asks the question: What is the meaning of success? Outward trappings, prestige, position, popularity, status and worldly achievement? Or real relationships, authenticity and honest self-assessment?