Hysterical Heretical Hollywood Humanism: The Theology of The Adjustment Bureau

NB: Major spoilers follow ed.

For decades, conservatives have been complaining about Hollywood’s anti-religious attitude. They’ve even gone so far as to call “Humanism” a religion of its own. Normally, progressives don’t give such rants much consideration—but if there is a religion of Hollywood Humanism, The Adjustment Bureau could be its unlikely gospel.

The second consecutive Matt Damon vehicle to deal with theological issues, The Adjustment Bureau follows on the heels of Clint Eastwood’s film about the afterlife, Hereafter [also reviewed by Jay Michaelson here ed]. In this new, excellently executed film, Damon plays David Norris, a young, charismatic politician whose star is on the rise. What Norris learns, by mistake, is that his entire life has been subtly manipulated by a team of fedora-hatted agents of the film’s title. Like Total Recall, Blade Runner, and a host of other paranoid films about not trusting your experiences or perceptions, the film was adapted from a Philip K. Dick tale, leaving us in familiar Philip K. Dick territory.

But The Adjustment Bureau is different, primarily because the “bureau” of the title turns out to work for God, a.k.a. “The Chairman.” The bureau’s job is to ensure that, in broad strokes, history unfolds according to the Divine Plan, neatly sketched out in circuitboard-like diagrams. Unfortunately for Norris, he’s fallen for a beautiful dancer, Elise Sellas (played by Emily Blunt)—and that isn’t part of the plan. If he marries Elise, he won’t have the yawning emptiness at the core of his soul that makes him long for the roar of a crowd, and he won’t someday become president of the United States and make the world a better place.

For this reason, the angels of the Bureau throw all kinds of obstacles in his way—everything from traffic accidents to rigged business deals—and threaten Norris with death if he reveals their existence to anyone. One angel, nicknamed “The Hammer,” (played beautifully by Terence Stamp) warns that if he follows his heart, not only his dreams but Elise’s too will be ruined; he issues this warning in the form of an injury during her performance.

So Norris faces a dilemma: Will he resign himself to fate, or pursue his love, even if it means risking everything? Well, this is a Hollywood movie, so you can guess which he ultimately chooses. No matter that the Plan comes from God Himself; Norris sets out to have it rewritten.

All this is possible because of the curious blend of monotheism and pre-monotheism that are part of the film’s premise. The Chairman is powerful and benevolent, but neither omniscient nor omnipotent; the angels are extremely limited in power, traveling not by supernatural ability, but by magic, fedora-activated portals scattered throughout New York City; and they feel emotions, causing one to go rogue and help Norris in his quest.

This, of course, rigs the theological dilemma. Fate is supposed to be fate: it’s final, and it’s the way it is. In religious and spiritual systems that subscribe to it, the best thing a religious person can do is resign oneself to it, to cultivate the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, to paraphrase theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

But not in Hollywood, where human agency knows no bounds. Of course Norris should follow his heart, disobey God’s plan, and marry the girl of his dreams. And of course he can; while Norris frets about free will, it’s obvious that he does have it. He’s up against some powerful adversaries, but he calls the shots. We know all this because we know Hollywood’s sentimental religion, which is indeed a kind of neo-Romantic fanatic narcissism. And it is fanatic: once Norris makes his decision, he risks his own life, her life, and the life of countless collateral damage casualties.

Carried to its logical extreme, Norris is Lucifer: the rebellious angel who tries to overthrow God. It’s radical, really—the hero is the one who disobeys God’s plan, for the sake of love. Wow! Maybe the Christian Right is right to be so critical.

But, in the last scene of the film, The Adjustment Bureau cops out. The rogue angel now reveals that, actually, God wanted Norris to make this choice all along. It was all a test, and Norris passed. Cue voiceover (check), wide pan (check), and cut to the final credits.

But this massive theological cop-out doesn’t really work. Since the angels possess a written copy of God’s plan, there’s no way to know ex ante whether Norris’ disobedience is All Part Of The (Meta-)Plan or just plain old disobedience. At one crucial moment in the film, Norris looks into his beloved’s eyes and says “this just can’t be wrong.” Certainly, this is an experience I can relate to, as can anyone who’s fallen in love with someone of the “wrong” gender, religion, or ethnic background. It’s actually a moment of religious maturity.

But there’s a certainty and a zeal to Norris’ ideological presumption that I actually found scary. Personally, my deciding that the way I love “just can’t be wrong” came at the end of lots of godwrestling, discernment, and pain. I’m not saying everyone should go through what I went through—and I’m sure glad millions of people don’t have to anymore. But I find myself hard-pressed to distinguish Norris’ humanist zeal from a fundamentalist’s religious one.

Now, in fairness, Norris does spend eleven months living without his beloved and resigning himself to the glorious career ahead of him. But those eleven months pass in a cinematic instant; an “eleven months later” supertitle, and one scene of Norris being unhappy. The fact is, we know that a Hollywood movie is not going to endorse surrender, serenity, fate, or acceptance, and will even fudge the theology (bumbling agents, changes in Divine decree) in order to have its way. Perhaps Norris isn’t rebelling against the monotheistic God, but the screenwriter certainly is.

Personally, I think that’s fine. I don’t have any vested interest in preserving a notion of an anthropomorphic deity who issues decrees; I’m happy to see it torn down by Hollywood. But if it’s replaced by a zealous individualism (I’ll tell you what’s right, I’ll decide quickly, and I’ll fight for it), I wonder if the benefit is worth the cost. The substance of Norris’ choice resonates deeply with my spiritual experience, but the process remains a little bit terrifying.

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