By Don Simpson | March 3, 2011
Director: George Nolfi
Writers: George Nolfi (screenplay), Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”)
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp
David Norris (Matt Damon) is a plainspoken working class everyman from Red Hook whose life has been seemingly hijacked by a messianic (and meteoric) rise into American politics. When we meet David, he is a revered Congressman in the home stretch of a high-profile Senate race. David has a commanding lead until a unexpected (and fateful) turn for the worse occurs — a frat boy indiscretion from his past creeps into the news headlines crippling his campaign at the last second.
While practicing his concession speech is a men’s restroom, David encounters Elise (Emily Blunt) for the first time. Their meeting seems meant to be, as if the gods made David lose the Senate race in order for his true love Elise to stumble into his life. But the gods giveth and the gods taketh away…and as quickly as Elise dropped into David’s life, poof, she is gone. What are the odds that David and Elise will ever meet again? I’d say the odds are pretty damn good.
They do meet again, on a city bus that David takes on a daily basis. David has plenty of time to score Elise’s digits and their first official date seems inevitable… But fate once again rears its ugly head again, this time in the physical manifestation of a group of men in trilby hats led by Richardson (John Slattery). We soon learn that these hatted men represent the Bureau who, per orders from “The Chairman”, adjust people’s lives to keep them on their correct path.
David’s life has been monitored (and occasionally adjusted) by one of the hatted agents, Harry (Anthony Mackie); essentially, David is merely a puppet whose life is being controlled by the Bureau. It is common knowledge throughout the Bureau that David and Elise were never meant to meet, but how can the Bureau keep these two people on their “correct” paths when true love keeps intervening? The Bureau is forced to call in their big gun, Thompson (Terence Stamp), to personally impress upon David just how important it is that he never strays from the Bureau’s pre-defined track.
To assist the Bureau with their adjusting interventions, architectural design and city planning is flipped upside down (not as literally as Inception, though) as trilby hats provide the simple key to travel through doorways as if they are wormholes to unconnected locations; this trick allows the Bureau members to maneuver quickly and clandestinely to their subject’s location. The Adjustment Bureau may look and feel like Inception or The Matrix, but it is actually a very classic Hollywood romance — the kind in which the central couple is torn apart by circumstances beyond their control (you know, like fate, destiny, divinity…) — disguised in an atypically (for the genre) philosophical framework. (And if there are any visual effects, other than basic camera tricks and the Bureau’s fancy schmancy life-maps, they are virtually undetectable.) The men with hats (who are portrayed via cold and over-calculated acting styles, lending them an otherworldly air) aside, The Adjustment Bureau is at its core about the age-old battles of fate versus chance, religion versus science and career versus love.
The Bureau represents a mysterious elite who are purportedly dedicated to saving humanity from itself as they control human beings as if they are toy dolls; in other words, the Bureau are the monsters at the heart of every conspiracy theorist’s nightmares. (One could also interpret The Adjustment Bureau from a spiritual perspective as well — and the film actually alludes to this on multiple occasions — with “The Chairman” representing god and the Bureau team being angels.) Quite loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, writer-director George Nolfi’s tale adopts gross changes to Dick’s original characters and plot, leaving only the basic premise of what Dick’s adjustment team (a.k.a. the Bureau) can do. The most notable (and purposeful) change is Nolfi’s alteration in the lead character’s career (Dick’s Ed Fletcher is an insurance salesman); because however keenly shrouded, The Adjustment Bureau is clearly a political statement that provides fodder to the various conspiracy theories behind political elections. Whether Nolfi’s narrative is an allegory for George W. Bush or Barak Obama — both men seem to have had a helping hand in their respective presidential elections — is left up to the audience’s interpretation (and political persuasion). Nolfi keeps his political inclinations close to his chest, but he does seem quite skeptical of the election process. The United States purports to have a democratic electoral system, but who truly decides each party’s candidates and nominations as well as their election to office? I do not believe that Nolfi is suggesting that the Bureau (or any other Big Brother entity) actually exists, but I do think that he is asking his audience to be more curious and critical of the U.S. electoral system.