The Adjustment Bureau Does More Than Adjustments

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Here’s an idea for a movie: everything you think about reality is wrong; turns out, we’re being manipulated by The Powers That Be.   They control us for outcomes of their choosing.  Free will is an illusion.  Your life has already been plotted for you.

That post-modern fantasy has been done to death, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it again, as long as we copy a version that was done in the 1950s.  In this story, Matt Damon discovers The Powers That Be have a life plan for him (and everyone else) and that he’s deviated by falling for the wrong woman.  A woman screws it all up again.  In order to get course corrected, They have arranged to have hot coffee spill on his shirt so that he’ll have to go back and change, and thus miss the chance meeting with her.  We all know what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings; now you know who makes them flap.

He tries to resist it, he tries to run, but you can’t fight them, they are omnipotent and omniscient.


And etc.  Looks like The Matrix, but if you’re focused on the plot or the hats you’ll miss something subtle but more interesting, because what makes this movie a little different than the dystopian visions of The Matrix/Dark City, is that these Powers are controlling humans for their benefit. Not some underhanded Brezhnev “well you’re better off, trust us” deprivational benefit, but really, truly, for your benefit.

And so in the logic of the movie, Matt Damon isn’t chasing a better life for himself, he’s pursuing a worse one.

it only looks better

In this case, if he hooks up with Chesty, his dreams will be destroyed.  And so will hers.  This isn’t true love conquering all; this is love today that will turn into misery later.

The major exposition occurs when Matt Damon asks if there’s any free will, and Donaldson, the senior Adjuster, responds (paraphrased):

we chaperoned you from apes to the Roman Empire, then we let you have free will.  You immediately went into the Dark Ages.  So we stepped back in, and brought you through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, and then gave you back free will in 1910.  And since then you’ve generated several wars and brought the planet to the brink of ecological collapse.

Agent Smith made a similar point about humans in The Matrix, but we hear this message differently.  In 1999 at the height of the sexual and financial  orgy, we valued freedom above everything else because we didn’t have anything else to compare it to.  Now, when Donaldson says humans can’t be trusted with free will, we’re not so terribly upset by that– because in 2011 we’re not surprised by that.   Which is why the unconscious subtext of his speech is actually comforting: “we’re here, and even when you completely wreck things, we’ll step in and save your sorry asses.”

Now the movie flips The Matrix on its head.  No mythic hero here, no little boy hearing the Call To Adventure, returning three acts later a man. Not only are we children with grown ups cleaning up after us and nudging us along the path, but when we disobey them or throw a fit or hook up with the wrong woman, they’ll dutifully try to adjust it all again for us, like the parents of spoiled private school Manhattanites.

They’re going to make it all okay.  Strange coincidence that the movie was released just as Japan was devastated– or not.  Movies represent waking life’s wish fulfillment, and what we wish for is proof that someone more powerful than us could exist and offer a solution to our troubles, even if we have to be kicked down a few notches on the superiority scale.  Cue cross marketing strategy with stories about billions of extrasolar planets and life on Mars.


The other thing you’ll (not) have noticed is that these Adjusters, these other worldy powers, are– limited.  They can jump through dimensional space, but only if they’re wearing their hats.  They pant when they run, fall when they get punched, and no, they don’t see it coming.  Damon asks one if he’s an angel; and their boss “has gone by many names, but we just refer to him as The Chairman.”  (Sort of a newish title for an ancient power, but they do have offices in a NY skyscraper.)  Yet knowing this, Damon still tries, and succeeds, in tricking them.

I know that a lot of people think this is a metaphor for God.  You could say that the movie doesn’t call him God so as not to exclude any of the audience, but God just couldn’t be this frazzled by the portly Matt Damon.  So The Chairman isn’t God.  Perhaps The Chiarman is the Demiurge?  After all, the word means “public worker,” which seems quite in line with his job description.

But isn’t the demiurge evil?  Depends who you ask.  Some gnostic sects have him as evil but Plato started him as the benevolent manipulator of the material universe, though not the creator of the universe.   That fits.

But even that explanation misses the point.  The audience isn’t looking for a religion, a set of rules for existence, they’re looking for comfort.  Movies are wish fulfillments, not necessarily the plot or the theme but some aspect of it which makes us happy or quells an anxiety.

So while Donaldson says there’s no free will, in fact there is– Damon exerts it all the time- but it’s guided by these Adjusters and their powers.  That’s what we want.

These powers are powerful but they are not limitless, and in this sense they are what all conspiracy theories are: comfort in times of crisis that this isn’t your doing, you’re powerless, and, if things get really bad, there exists someone with enough power to handle it.

At the end of the movie, Matt Damon gets to be with his woman not because he tricked the Adjusters but because they let him– the plan was changed.  There’s the wish fulfillment.  Make it okay that I get what I want, with no consequences.


The Walking Dead


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19 Responses to The Adjustment Bureau Does More Than Adjustments

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    You may have noticed that a lot of people nowadays keep saying that we need more government, more state control, more Smart People at the top telling us what to do for our own good. The NYT editorial pages are big on that idea. Thomas Friedman writes about how the Chinese are so lucky to have a benevolent dictatorship, unlike poor dumb us with our stupid democracy. Krugman keeps going on about how “Big Government” is responsible for everything good that private enterprise has done, and private enterprise is at fault for all the missteps of “Big Government”.

    The Adjusters don’t represent God. They represent the Best and the Brightest: The kind of smart, ambitious, think-inside-the-box Ivy League types who look so good in suits and say such soothing, confident things when they’re running Goldman Sachs and/or Treasury, or the Tuskegee Experiment, or designing utopian public housing projects of the future, or announcing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution or TARP, or whatever. And yes, sometimes they do stuff like the interstate highway system, that turns out to be worth every penny.

    Ten or twelve years ago, as you say, the zeitgeist was well along towards the opposite extreme. But now, the spirit of the day says freedom is bad and scary, and you’re too dumb to make your own decisions, and you should want a paternalistic Higher Power to run your life for you. Sounds like the more annoying kind of Christian fundamentalist thinking. The hell with that noise…

    • George says:


      Can we have a “like” button?

    • Dave Pinsen says:

      That Damon’s character was a Democratic politician — and that the film portrays his frictionless transition from politics to venture capital (like Al Gore going to Kleiner Perkins) in an un-ironically positive light — supports your interpretation.

      To TLP: Can you please install Disqus here?

      • Pastabagel says:

        We can’t install Disqus here because then users couldn’t use the same login to post articles to the front page. But we are working on adding a like button and some other features to the comment system here.

        • Dave Pinsen says:

          OK, thanks for that explanation. I just submitted a post.

        • Dave Pinsen says:

          Thinking about this a little more:

          1) What % of your commenters do you think will also post? If it’s small, why not go for Disqus?

          2) Is it really necessary to have one log-in for both posting & commenting? Obviously, you want to make the process as easy as possible, but another multi-author blog I participate in (Tim Knight’s Slope of Hope, which runs on Typepad) allows authors to log in with Twitter, which is pretty easy. Incidentally, Tim Knight built his own commenting system, sort of like you are attempting to do. He apparently thought other blogs might be interested in it, but that interest didn’t materialize.

          • thundt says:

            F*ck, I wish everyone would just use OpenID. Everywhere. All these platforms, forums, etc.. (But instead, they are going to FB — or Twitter — for auth. Because Joe Blow knows how to use it and has accounts there already. Sigh…)

    • BHE says:

      And so it’s no wonder we’ve seen a rise of fundamentalism both here and abroad.

      Well said. I would go further and say that the “Best and Brightest” who would guide us to a utopian future used to be the scientists, and although a healthy distrust of technology has long existed (especially with the advent of nuclear weapons) we have now reached an age where scientific certainty has, in the mind of the public, become much less certain. “Truth” is now up for debate, and the same politicians we want to trust to lead us out of the debacle we’ve created for ourselves know this. Thus we debate global warming and evolution, and create whole news networks devoted to false or misleading information in the pursuit of political agendas. Create enough doubt in the minds of the people and you can get them to follow you anywhere so long as you appear certain enough.

      • foxfire says:

        This is really a throwback to the other discussion on economic “Science”.

        We debate Global Warming and Evolution because neither one of those is a hard science due to lack of reproducibility in a real world setting. We can run reproducible experiments on physics or chemistry all day long. We cannot put together a group of species X into environment Y then wait ten thousand years and see if they evolve into species Z. We cannot create a planet identical to earth, then introduce a change variable to variable X to see if climate change Y takes place.

        In both cases, we are making heavy use of computer models that attempt to simulate reality. If I gave you a computer model of planetary motion, and a year later you found it’s predictions on the location of Uranus were off by 1%, you would start to question it would you not? Yet, we accept that a 1% or 0.1% model is “good enough” in another field of science because we currently lack the technology to do better?

        Evolution has a secondary problem of being unobservable. A large part of evolutionary theory is educated guesses based on partial remains of creatures that died a long time ago. The lack of direct observation and reproducible experiments makes evolution more of a field of history than science.

        200 years ago, the entire field of electricity and magnetism was mostly unknown. Today, we have ways of reproducing and measuring those things. Maybe someday we may have the technology to turn climate theory and evolution into hard sciences, but until then, there is some danger in treating those fields in the same manner as something that is as reproducible and observable as the law of gravity.

        It is hard to debate against a field of science that can put a cruise missle through your bedroom window from 1000 miles away ten times in a row. Meanwhile, climate theory wants people to believe predictions that are years away based on models that are not accurate when used to predict things that are months away. Those models are not necessarily wrong, but they do leave a lot to be desired.

        • johnnycoconut says:

          Interesting points, ones that should be better addressed in curriculums.

          There have been experiments in e.g. guppies, bacteria, and lab mice that have induced adaptations that appear to be evolutionary, though I don’t think any new species have been created this way.

          Also, you’re right that chaos (random-ish variations due to very small factors) affects how well weather and climate can be predicted, which is especially problematic in the medium term. But since chaos operates within a limited range, while climate deals with long-term trends, you can get a good idea of how accurately you can predict climate by estimating the range of the chaos–it’s like a confidence interval. It turns out that, over wide areas and timeframes, you can account for historical trends pretty well with climate models, and you can say very confidently that human-caused greenhouse gases have caused the global warming that’s been happening for decades (i.e. the earth has, on average, gotten significantly warmer), with noticeable effects on climate and weather patterns pretty much everywhere.

  2. boeotarch says:

    What is ‘our benefit?’ If you really want to get into the metaphysical suggestions of the movie it’s basically arguing that even God’s plan is arbitrary and that’s why exceptional cases like Damon are allowed to deviate.

    Rome was great for the Romans but not so great for Gaul or Carthage.

    • Rookie says:

      Boetarch, I’d disagree. Roads, agricultural development, better sewage, running water, public works, peace (after they’d killed a lot of people initially), economic growth… an invasion by Rome meant a lot of positive developments down the line. That’s not to say that the ends justify the means.

      If you have a child and you do everything for them, then you get an incompetent and reliant adult. If you take over a country and do everything for them your way, you kill off their culture and reduce the scope of human diversity. I’d argue that’s bad, from an evolutionary and logical perspective: diversity means resilience, different cultures will survive different calamities, develop different approaches to solving problems etc. I guess even though a Roman invasion would have increased the quality of life of locals quite a bit, maybe those locals would have found a better or different way to achieve the same ends if left to develop on their own.

      Even as I write this I see paralells to Iraq versus Lybia, Egypt and the whole middle east right now. People have to change for themselves. No therapist, league of nations, parent or concerned friend can force change from outside.

      • boeotarch says:

        Even if we accept economic development as a consequence of Roman annexation, we’re still talking about an idea of progress being imposed from outside. The film also points to the period from the Renaissance until World War 1- it’s true that this was a time of massive cultural, scientific and economic achievement, but it’s also true that it was a time when a lot of people were killed, conquered or put into bondage to fuel that achievement.

        Bringing it back to the movie, in the Director/God’s plan, Damon and the English chick can’t be together because they’d be ‘enough’ for each other, if they were together they’d lose the drive to do all the things the plan called for them to do. It wasn’t a choice between happiness and misery, it was a choice between their personal happiness and their contributions to the world around them- the value of those contributions, of course, being measured by the Director/God and not by themselves or by the people who stood to ‘benefit’ from it.

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  4. stellachiara says:

    I find your thought process so interesting because it’s completely and utterly different than mine. You come at things from an angle that usually doesn’t even appear on my viewscreen.

    You know, God is busy with other things. That’s why he sends angels to take care of the minutiae. Angels aren’t God – in Christian mythology, they can be, and have been, challenged by humans. And it’s not that Matt Damon was so hard to handle that even God couldn’t do it. It was that everyone else is (and has been) asleep, and happy to let someone else decide. The angels got used to working with asleep people, and they weren’t really prepared to handle an awakened and stubborn outlier. I thought it was a simple movie, really.

    It’s interesting how often (now that I think about it, almost exclusively) your personal lens picks up, magnifies, and elaborates on the negative aspects of humanity, and pushes them to the foreground as if they were The Real Truth. I think pointing out those aspects is a useful tool, a necessary one to cut through the bullshit in a culture that is always telling lies to itself. But as a primary means of interpreting reality, it’s akin to slow-motion suicide.

    But what do I know? I’m just an anonymous internet person commenting anonymously on an anonymous blog :) And I hope you’re okay from the bad event of earlier.

  5. Lisette says:

    “…the portly Matt Damon.”

    Really? I loved the post, but how is Matt Damon portly? This jarred.

  6. thundt says:

    I guess wish fulfillment is okay when it’s a case of meddling with an already-meddled-with course of events. Two wrongs make a right, and all that.