Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Instead of Being President, May I Simply Take a First Lady?

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Instead of Being President, May I Simply Take a First Lady?

By Santiago Ramos

The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi
Written by George Nolfi (screenplay), Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”)
Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Florence Kastriner

One coherent idea can be wrested from this silly movie, and with it, one fundamental mistake. The Adjustment Bureau claims that the notion of “a calling” is incompatible with free will; it confuses vocation with fatalism. It is a cheap sci-fi flick that will make a lot of money, but its metaphysical statement makes it the anti-King’s Speech, and thus a more significant film than it deserves to be. It requires an explanation so that it may be explained away.

mediapicApr1 The actual Adjustment Bureau is a mysterious organization of intelligent life forms that look just like you and me, but live for much longer. The length of their lives allow them to monitor the progress of human history and to surreptitiously nudge human events towards progress, peace, and the fulfillment of personal talents. But how do they know in which direction to nudge? They carry little electronic books—they look a lot like leather-bound Kindles, actually—which bear self-updating diagrams mapping out the future of every human life. The (always off-screen and reverently referenced) Chairman—who all men call God—writes a plan for each and every human being; the Adjustment Bureau case officers shepherd the most important human beings (politicians, artists, and I would assume, CEOs) to their destiny. Sometimes, the case officers find it necessary to adjust events to make sure that the important people don’t fall off course and mess up the Chairman’s plan.

According to a senior member of the Adjustment Bureau, who is summoned by his inferiors once things get complicated in Act Two, humanity is not truly free. The Bureau guided humanity from its caveman beginnings to the height of Roman imperial greatness; at that point, free will was respected once again and… the Dark Ages persisted for several centuries. Once again the Bureau got to work: they enlivened humanity with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, allowing us to be free once again in 1910. You know what happened after that. Sometime in the mid-1960s, the Bureau decided that two world wars and one Cuban missile crisis were enough, and they took control once again.

There is not much to be gained by listing the different ways in which the above conceit is ridiculous and stupid. Rome was built by genius, yes, but also by conquest and slavery. The North American slave trade, the Thirty Year’s War, colonialism, the Reign of Terror, all occurred between… No, no. Too much work. There are enough absurdities to be derived from the plot.

The plot consists of a challenge to the Adjustment Bureau orthodoxy. One man falls in love against the Chairman’s plan and…perhaps free will is good after all! Matt Damon plays David Norris, a handsome and smart young politician whose meteoric rise to power has been handicapped by a series of bad decisions—for example, getting arrested in a bar fight on the evening of an election. Nevertheless, he is brilliant and important enough that he merits personal attention by the bureau. His case officer is named Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie).

The Chairman’s original plan for Norris included a lifelong relationship with a talented ballerina named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), whom Norris meets on the night in which he loses his first election for Senate. It is love at first sight, but this is no good because the Chairman has changed Norris’ plan. According to the new plan, Norris is meant to be a great political leader and save America without Elise; she would ruin that, for some mysterious reason. But Norris is so infatuated, and he comes so close to messing up his own life, that the Bureau has to reveal its own existence to Norris in a radical effort to put things in their right place. Yet Norris is a hopeless romantic and he refuses to accept his fate.

Free will means “I love Elise” and fate means “You are called to be a great leader.” That is the simple dichotomy that the movie offers us, overlooking obvious complicating objections, such as the fact that it was the Chairman (“fate”) which brought Elise to Norris in the first place, and that even if Norris is fated to be a great leader, he has to accept his fate—he has to will it with his own self. No amount of free will could have created Elise, and the Chairman would never actually force Norris to run for office (in fact, even though he has been nudged in one way or another, Norris is always free).

The climax of the movie occurs once Case Officer Harry decides that all of this is just too heartbreaking, and he helps Norris to escape the clutches of the Bureau, whisk Elise away from a rival suitor, and reclaim his free will. But it also means that the Chairman has changed plans once again: there is no more plan for Norris. I’m not sure if that means that rest of us are going to enter into the dark ages again, but perhaps there will be a sequel.

In The King’s Speech, one man attempts to overcome the obstacles that keep him from fulfilling his call to become the leader of his people. In order to overcome those obstacles, he needs and is given a friend. Freedom and a calling. Freedom and companionship as necessary for choosing to heed a calling, and for having strength to do so.

The Adjustment Bureau has the same story: one man called to be a leader and he is given a friend (well, a case officer) to help him overcome the obstacles that get in his way. But now one of those obstacles is a woman who is for some reason incompatible with his calling. (She is “enough”, says Harry, she would extirpate all the emptiness, and fulfill all the desires in Norris’ heart and he would not see any need pursue politics. No pressure, Elise!) So Norris decides he’d rather do his own thing and… screw humanity? Not explicitly. But is humanity screwed? Well, that’s uncertain—the Chairman decides to give Elise and Norris a clean book, complete free will, so that means that America might never get to have its awesome president in the future. But does that mean…?

Nothing. It means nothing. The movie makes no sense. It just says “Free will is cool”, “Chance encounters are weird,” and “A pretty girl is the answer to all questions and wants, ever.” Oh, and, “That’ll be twelve dollars.”

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.