January 21, 2021

IM Film Review: Humans 1, Angels 0

By Chaplain Mike

My first comment to my wife after watching “The Adjustment Bureau” was, “I don’t think John Piper would like it.”

Turns out divine sovereignty is more malleable than we thought. However, on the other hand, free will isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. There are doors all around us through which fedora-topped “men” pass to make sure our lives run according to plan and manipulate matters when they don’t. But it also seems that “The Chairman” revises his plans, and even his messengers are unaware. His case workers just study the books in their hands and follow what’s written. And in the great tradition of American movies, love wins over even The Chairman’s heart in the end. Though it requires a “great deviation” in the plan, hero and heroine live happily ever after.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which is surprisingly up front in taking on its theological subjects. The “Calvinism” the film portrays is certainly awkward, limited, and subject to misadventure and tinkering. Who would have thought a spilled cup of coffee at the wrong time could stir up so much angst in heaven’s courts? At one point an Adjuster laments that heaven is short-staffed and can’t keep track of every single individual, so, apparently only those who have a vital public destiny in changing the world, such as Matt Damon’s character, get resources devoted to them. And when a high-ranking Adjuster explains why the Bureau acts as it does, he gives a run-down of history that indicates heaven would like nothing more than to turn earthly affairs over to humans. But alas, humans just haven’t been able to keep things from blowing up when left in charge. So at critical moments, heaven has stepped back in, cleaned up the mess, and kept us from self-destructing.

“The Adjustment Bureau” is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. It faithfully portrays themes Dick regularly wrote about: personal human identity, one’s relationship to powerful external realities, often envisioned as corporate entities or authoritarian governments, and our perceptions about what is real. This film is smart, funny, well-acted, and one of the more thoughtful films dealing with life’s mysteries that I have seen.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, an up-and-coming New York politician who gets trounced in an election but meets a girl. Only the plan said that he wasn’t supposed to meet the girl, so he ends up losing the girl. Then, seemingly by chance, he finds the girl again. In the meantime, he becomes aware of men in suits and hats—”Adjusters”— who at one point take him captive, threaten him in a giant warehouse, and then let him go. Unless he keeps quiet about what he has seen and learned, life as he knows it will come to an end.

The problem is, for mysterious reasons we discover later, he can’t stop thinking about the girl. Elise, played by Emily Blunt, is a gifted dancer who, without him, seems poised for greatness. Without her, he is a promising young politician who, even though he lost one election, has a bright future with unlimited possibilities. With her, well, perhaps that’s all at risk, as might be her future in choreography. However, they seem destined for each other, and neither can shake that intuition.

By various means the dark-suited men in hats fight to keep David and Elise apart. However, one of them, named Harry (Anthony Mackie), seems troubled by the situation, meets with Norris on several occasions, lets him in on certain secrets, and even helps him plot the move that leads to the movie’s climactic confrontation. Is Harry a “bad angel,” disobeying orders, undercutting the plan, and forsaking his duty? Or do the Adjusters themselves have a measure of freedom to act and change outcomes as well? Do feelings play a part in their decisions also, or are these “case workers” meant to be purely objective in their obedience and adherence to The Chairman and his designs?

I sense that this film could lead to some great discussions about weighty theological topics. Though not overtly “Christian” in its musings, “The Adjustment Bureau” raises universal questions about life, God, human choice and freedom, and the relationship between the world we experience with our senses and the possibility of a hidden realm of “powers” that may or may not be influencing our lives from behind the scenes. Besides that, it has two attractive people with real chemistry between them in a good love story, and there are plenty of plot twists with a healthy dose of dramatic action. Who could ask for more?

At one point, Adjuster Richardson (played by John Slattery doing his best Jack Webb deadpan impression) says to David Norton, “You’ve just seen behind a curtain that you weren’t even supposed to know existed.” A film that helps us imagine such a curtain and the world it hides may just do more than entertain us.

The Adjustment Bureau
2011, by Universal Pictures
Written and Directed by George Nolfi
Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt


  1. I’m a pretty avid science fiction reader, and every time I read Philip K. Dick, I’m left thinking that the man was brilliant at developing ideas, but only so-so at telling stories. This film sounds about the same.

    They sure are interesting ideas, though. Should tick off Calvinists and Arminians alike — which is probably a good thing …

  2. You just had to mention John Piper, didn’t you? I gave up thinking about, talking about, reading about, etc., John Piper for Lent, and you just caused me to break my fast.

    • Eric, Sundays don’t count when marking Lent, so you are OK.

      Good thing I didn’t post this on Monday, huh?

      • hey, that is a Lenten technicality few really know about!

        so, has anyone else counted down the ’40’ days of Lent & come up short of Easter???

        [ssshhh…you don’t want to give away all the secrets behind the curtain…]


        • or calculating Easter for those of us using the Western calendar…

          the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox…

          amazing some of the things i remember from my religious upbringing…


          [and the reason Easter is so late this year…]

      • Chaplain Mike-
        “Sundays don’t count when marking Lent”

        Only according to the Western tradition. The Eastern Churches hold to counting Sundays into Lent 😀

    • So giving up Piper is a sacrifice?

  3. Eric, that’s hilarious. I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t find it as funny as I do, nor should I want everyone to give this up for Lent.

  4. In the sequel, Observers and Adjusters compete to determine which looks more fabulous in a fedora.

  5. I got a kick out of the line. “You only have the APPEARANCE of free will”. I am no Calvinist and have trouble in accepting a God who would create a soul whose only purpose is to be destroyed in hell.

    Although I liked most of the movie I found it to be too long by about 20 minutes, Whenever you make a 2 hour movie from a short story there will always be a good amount of slack in the rope. Mildly entertaining but I’ll forget I even saw it in a few weeks.

  6. The movie was well done. But, honestly, I didn’t enjoy it. Partly because I was expecting more of an action movie and was in the mood for that. And partly because I found the conclusion irritating. I’m not a Calvinist, but if God’s will were so specific about such things; it is very much like our culture to think that if we want something or someone bad enough, God/chairman will change his mind. Then to assume that what I wanted is best…… I guess it is very fitting for our culture. Anyway, like I said, it was well done and I might have enjoyed it more on a different day.

  7. Here’s the trailor…….


    Man, oh man…as I sat in the movie theater I wondered what the “fundgelicals’ would say as the plot began to unfold. “God” making a mistake…but how? Isn’t he perfect? There is no “free will?” Everything is pre-determined? Where do you draw the line? Maybe this line of thinking explains some of the perverse thinking I used to hear in previous church environmnets… ie….”Well I was driving around praying for a parking spot and a person left!! PRAISE THE LORD!!!”

    I’d check out the Desiring God wesbite…but I gave up John Piper as well as my faith for lent 😉 (sorry bad agnostic humor….) But seriosuly…I wonder what that side of the church will say about this film?

    • unfortunately, everything we ‘perceive’ from our limited perception of reality must take into consideration some aspect of God’s purposes & our limited arena of choice as we understand it…

      neither the hyper-Calvinist nor the liberal Arminianist can isolate & cancel out this tension. even i must accept my limitation in the grander consideration of what is termed God’s permissive will vs. His revealed will…

      somehow, we as His crown of creation are granted the ability to make choices within the limited arena of our existence. and with that ability comes the resultant consequences of those actions whether good or bad. i can accept the concept of God’s revealed will as being the one we will held accountable to. but then His secret will or more general permissive will is too nebulous if one is trying to make sense of the imponderables of life…

      i do know this one practical component of my personal faith journey: what i believe about God is directly proportional to the amount of trust i have in Him…

      it is also true that His representatives have a great deal of influence in how i perceive this God they claim to serve & in which i also believe. many examples though of a negative kind: i simply can extrapolate that no, God is not like that if that is how you are making Him out to be…

      i have enjoyed your posts from the first time i decided to start posting on this site myself. i had been a lurker for many years, but decided to jump into the conversation after reading many of Michael’s archived articles. i like the way he wrote. and i like the topics he was brave enough to tackle. his questioning of things even he admitted were too wonderful for him to ever have the final word on was that endearing trait of a fellow pilgrim on a journey & not a destination. i don’t think God can be reduced to a theologically logical concept meant to satisfy our sense of having all the answers. even strict Calvinists know that God truly is greater than the sum of His revealed parts. i like systematic theology & how the greater ponderings of our faith have been meditated on throughout the centuries by minds greater than mine. i know how limited my own understanding is. i know i want to have a greater understanding of things i too think are incredibly wonderful to think i would ever grasp. anyway, it is a walk by faith by design. and no, there are secrets of a divine nature that we will never be privileged to know. i suppose it is up to each individual to conclude just what kind of God would design such a universe & hold it all together while allowing me the ability to question & wrestle over the implications…

  8. Saw it Friday night. Early reviews were say ing it was this years “Inception”
    It’s no Inception.
    Think more like: It’s A Wonderful Life, Heaven can Wait, etc.

    • I am most intrigued. I’ll have to put it on my list of movies to see.

      And since you brought it up Steve, I think iMonk should review Inception. 😀

      • If we dicsuss Inception in the comments section here, that would make it a review… within a review…
        (brain explodes)

        • You think discussing it hear will make your brain explode? Get a room of psychology majors together and see what happens XD

  9. It doesn’t have to be good theology. It’s a movie. I agree; if it makes people think and talk about something deeper than the final four (I know, sacrilege), then it has the making of good art. I like Steve’s comparison to the “Wonderful Life”; I certainly don’t think Clarence is a good theological depiction of an angel. I also don’t think God dictates every detail in life; and I can say that without becoming a deist or questioning the sovereignty of God. I hate it when everything is blamed on the will of God, which I think Spinoza rightly called the “refuge of ignorance”.

  10. Mike,
    If Heaven is short staffed does this mean God is outsourcing angels?

  11. are the Adjusters from this movie & the Observers from Fringe moonlighting or crossing over into parallel universes or am i just seeing double???

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