‘Adjustment Bureau’ and the Theology of Predestination and Free Will
While it is certainly not the best film of the year, the new Hollywood release, “Adjustment Bureau,” staring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, is much more theological than your average weekend flick at the box office. It’s not all that often that you have an exchange between movie actors that evokes centuries of theological debate about human freedom, free will and the role of Divine Providence.
“What about Free Will?” David Norris (played by Matt Damon) asks Thompson, one of the Bureau’s ‘agents.’
“You are only given the appearance of Free Will!” Thompson (played by Terence Stamp) replies.
In a sense, you have before you the somewhat thrilling and reasonably cute mixture of love story–meets–John Calvin. The questions the characters struggle with throughout the film in an effort to better understand what precisely is happening, are the questions that have kept theologians employed for centuries. Does God have a plan? Does God intervene in the events of human history? Do human beings have free will? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why? Why? Why?
Elements of the story are lacking and the screenwriting is only mediocre, but — as one movie reviewer so keenly observed — the natural chemistry between Damon and Blunt is captivating in its own right. Though the question of absolute predestination versus an alternative approach to conceptualizing Divine Providence and human freedom is never quite resolved, you do have snippets of classic attempts to reconcile human experience with doctrinal claims.
It is difficult to miss the overtly Calvinistic milieu of the first half or more of the movie. The “Adjustment Bureau,” those agents who serve at the pleasure of “The Chairman” (read: “God”), respond to questions and reveal in small talk that “The Chairman” has a plan according to which all things must align (hence the Bureau’s ongoing effort to rectify seeming sidetracks). At one point one of the agents says that there is a larger plan of which humans only have a small glimpse.
This notion of Divine Providence in relation to human history reflects the certitude of John Calvin, while at the same time appealing to the much older Augustinian theodicy tradition that suggests human beings can only see part of God’s plan, which is why historical and natural evils appear meaningless to people at times. “God draws straight with crooked lines” and other tired adages easily come to mind to illustrate this general theological stream.
In the end, it is the triumph of Free Will over absolute determinism. It’s a shame that there appears to be (at least to me) undertones of the American Myth that incorrectly suggests that “if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything,” made more stark against the relief of Damon’s character’s personal history and future potential. Nevertheless, it is a preservation of the doctrine of liberum arbitrium that remains the hero of the story. Love is the context for the ostensibly proper exercise of the will, even “The Chairman” can’t get in the way of that.
I do agree with some movie critics that suggest the film could have been much stronger with a better screenplay and a story line that pushed the implications of the various features of the theological debate further along their natural trajectories. It would have made for a much more interesting film for theologians, but then again most people are going to this movie to see a mild thriller and the love between Damon and Blunt prevail. And the people basically get what they want.