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The Adjustment Bureau:
A Philosopher's Thriller


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“…they were formed not in accordance with His powers but in accordance with His desired end. He created them imperfect so that they should perfect themselves and so that their perfection would be their reward in the merit of their having labored for it...”

~ Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, The Knowing Heart


I vaguely recall, as a precocious nine-year-old, coming up with a brilliant plan. Having learned not too long before that of Fate and the fact that God not only knew all and saw all but that He had a Plan for the world, a Plan in which we all play a part, I had decided that, the next time I did anything wrong, I would simply tell my mother: God made me do it. My mother, while quite amused, was quick to set me straight: God does have a Plan but, as part of that Plan, we were each given free choice, the ability to decide, and take responsibility for, our actions.

In other words, God, apparently, did not make me pull my sister’s hair. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed that my idea had backfired but, hours after I had apologized to my sister, my disappointment gave way to confusion. I live with that confusion to this day and I know I am far from alone. How is it possible for there to be free choice and Fate? If we are meant to do something how can we choose to do it? But if we do not choose, how can we be held accountable? And if we do choose, how can it be that our billions of collective choices, each and every hour of every day, don’t destroy God’s Plan?

When I went to see The Adjustment Bureau, I was expecting something that fell squarely in the sci-fi/fantasy realm – maybe there’d be an alien-based government conspiracy theory or some havoc-reeking alternative dimension. What I most certainly was not expecting was a new voice in the philosophical conversation on Fate. And yet, that is exactly what I got. This is a movie that has a man try to outrun destiny; this is Oedipus Rex in HD. Except it’s better because it assumes a much more complex relationship between us and Fate.

Too often the genre of thriller has become synonymous with high-speed car chases and the intellectual thriller has become synonymous with “you can’t trust the government” and a high-speed car chase. Anyone can make a thriller of someone fleeing a bad guy or a thief trying to escape the law or a man trying to save his family. But The Adjustment Bureau is a film that dares to take a Philosophy 101 syllabus and make a thriller out of that.

I don’t want to give away anything of the film since, as rare as this is, very little of the movie can be spoken about without unraveling the whole thing. However, I will say this: I have spoken of the film’s exploration of Fate but do not be fooled by that. This film is, by no means, a one-metaphysical-trick pony. The story is peppered with little moments of curiosity, moments that ask the very questions that we should be asking ourselves. What matters more, love or duty? What is humanity capable of? How do we reconcile tragedy? What should be our relationship with God? God’s relationship with us? What drives us to excel?

Unfortunately, as with the centuries of debates and discussions, treatises and tomes, the answers are never as potent as the questions. While I admired the film’s attempts to plumb the depths of these issues, the film’s answers reminded me that we do not know, and cannot know. Yet that should never keep us from asking the question. It is, I think, part of humanity’s destiny to try to understand, to use all the resources available to us to work to uncover our purpose. I think, more than anything else, that is what we can learn from The Adjustment Bureau. For, more than it being about a man at odds with Fate, it is a story of a man trying to understand his Fate, trying to accept his Fate, and, most crucially, trying to own his Fate. Because the true thrill of this movie is the underlying assumption that we do have a say in our destinies, that we must, and that, as such, we are obliged to grasp the enormity of that responsibility. I’ll take that over a high-speed car chase any day because, while the latter may get my adrenaline going, the former already keeps me up at night.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

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