Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

The Adjustment Bureau (official website: written and directed by George Nolfi and based on a 1950s era short story by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is a speculative movie oriented above all to a college aged / young adult audience. It touches questions that enter into the theological realm and that, while having an importance to people of all ages, have particular urgency to people at that age: Is there a Plan (ordained by God / Fate) for our lives and indeed for the world? Is there someone who we are supposed to meet/be with (marry)? Is there a particular career path or vocation that I’m supposed to undertake? What happens when we would deviate from that Plan? Are we free to do so? Or will a “higher power” seek to nudge us back toward the Plan?

In the world of the movie, it is the task of a discreet group of “higher beings” working for a “boss” to keep people "on Plan." David Norris (played by Matt Damen) a young, capable, charismatic and _fundamentally good_ New York Senate candidate encounters members of this group of beings, discreetly dressed for “Manhattan today” (err, more like for Manhattan of the 1950s ;-) in gray trench coats and fedora hats and presented to him as “The Adjustment Bureau” working for a “Chairman,” after he accidently encounters a particular woman, Elise Sellas (played by Emily Blunt), for a second time. His encounter with her for first time, it turns out, was no accident. However, his encounter with her a second time was an accident with potentially devastating implications for the futures of both the characters and for the world.

So the Team assigned to David Norris (played by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and eventually Terence Stamp as Thomson) from the "Adjustment Bureau" which normally guided things from the shadows, had to step out into the life of David Norris to warn him _for everybody’s good_ to “stay on Plan.” Shaken, Norris didn’t understand, why would someone who felt so immediately so “right” could be so “wrong” for him, for her and for the world? The rest of the movie is about resolving this question both for the two characters involved in the story and for the audience.

The movie therefore becomes a great entré into a discussion of Fate/Predestination vs Free Will. I would encourage anyone who sees this movie to browse this topic on the pages of wikipedia, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the online (old) Catholic Encyclopedia to reflect on this fundamental question and to discuss it over beers or coffee with friends (and dare one hope, clergy :-) as to how our answers to this fundamental question (fate vs free will) can impact key decisions we make in our lives. This is good stuff!

ADDENDUM (added 2 days after my initial review):

I’ve spent the better part of the weekend reflecting on this movie, and I do believe that I do have problem with the movie’s premise. The movie assumes that "God’s Plan" for senate candidate David Norris is much more burdensome than "God’s plan" generally is.

To make the point, I quote the simple beginning lines of the Baltimore Catechism:

Lesson 1 from the Baltimore Cathechism

1. Who made us?
God made us.
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. (Genesis 1:1)

2. Who is God?
God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.
In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

3. Why did God make us?
God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him. (I Corinthians 2:9)

4. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?
To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.
Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth; where the rust and moth consume and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven; where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. (Matthew 6:19-20)

Now, EXPERIENTIALLY, in my 12 years of being a Catholic priest, I’ve buried over 250 people, about 20 a year. Not one of them was important or famous. Some were probably schmucks (you can kinda tell that from what the friends/family say... ;-). However, a good number of those who I buried seemed to me to be authentically good people even though _no one_ outside of their families, friends, and GOD would have known that. And certainly no worldly monuments (streets named after them, statues of them placed in parks, etc) would be built in their honor.

So while the conflict between "public sacrifice/greatness and private happiness" may make for an interesting story/movie – and I _continue_ to recommend this movie to college-aged 20-somethings and young adults who really are in a stage in their lives when "the world is their oyster" and they are making big decisions about their lives – I do think that the movie actually misrepresents God and even Christian religion in general.

I say this because at both extremes, the Calvinists (who famously believed in Predestination) and the Catholics who defended Free Will, BOTH were talking about FUNDAMENTAL CHOICES (or STATES), that is of being at peace or not at peace with God. To both camps one’s other actions ultimately didn’t matter _that much_.

To the Calvinists one’s other (worldly) actions did not matter _at all_ (even though worldly success was seen as probable evidence of one being in grace with God). And the Catholic Church has _always_ maintained that up until one’s death one was ALWAYS able to reconcile with God (through a good Confession) no matter how much one may have run away from God throughout the course of one’s life. St. Dismas the Good Thief crucified with Jesus was always an important figure in Catholic imagination (and is even invoked in the Prayers of the Faithful in the current Catholic Funeral Rite).  And Jesus’ saying that "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents than over the ninety nine righteous people with no need of repentance" (Luke 15:7) has been a stock appeal in Lenten Mission Sermons since at least the Middle Ages when Lenten Mission Sermons began to be recorded.

So it is doubtful that by EITHER belief system (Calvinist or Catholic) God would have put such a heavy burden on Senate candidate David Norris as in the movie. Instead, in the simple words of the Baltimore Catechism, our purpose (God’s plan for us) is simply to come to "know, love, and serve God in this world" and then "to share everlasting happiness" with him "in heaven." And that would be why Jesus could say "Come to me all who are burdened and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light" (Mt 11:30).

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