by Jo Piazza
Fedoras have made a comeback as of late. Their recent prominence in fashion is underscored by their function in the recent Matt Damon thriller “The Adjustment Bureau” where the hats imbue their wearers with mystical powers allowing them to circumnavigate from the West Side to the East Side of Manhattan by crossing through a single door and adjust a person’s destiny with a tip of their brow. Needless to say the door thing comes in handy since crossing midtown during rush hour can take at last 45 minutes.
But the fedora doesn’t provide the niftiest tricks of “The Adjustment Bureau.” The truly grand feat was disguising a film steeped in philosophical theology as a romantic thriller. Is it a romance? Sure? Thrilling? Sometimes. But more than both, it was a serious screed on the existence and interference of god in everyday life.
That predestination in the film is seen as an elaborate plan spelled out in a leather bound book created by someone called the Chairman and it’s dictums carried out by a stable of middle management minions in wash and wear suits does seem to make it an apt parable for our times.
The studio, Universal, apparently didn’t think of much of the Chairman’s powers of persuasion at the box office as previews have been carefully manipulated (by men and women with and without hats we presume) to showcase the flick as thriller and romance, stripping religion from mass mediated marketing materials.
But once they have audiences in the theater there’s no longer any need for subterfuge. The movie openly talks about things like fate, free will and the guardian angels who often go to dangerous lengths to ensure all goes to God’s (the Chairman’s) plan.
The movie’s message boils down to the fact that free will isn’t a given. Human beings can have free will only if they prove they really, really deserve it, otherwise adjustments are necessary because humanity is too childish and immature to make their own decisions without destroying their world. At one point a guardian angel explains that every time the Chairman loosens the reigns on his subjects, terrible, horrible, no good very bad things happen like the Dark Ages, the Holocaust and global nuclear war (almost).
The film’s marketing department held a series of “clergy only” screenings which have rallied the religious ranks and created chatter in the faith blogosphere.
“This is a great movie for a synagogue group; see it and have a discussion over coffee afterwards. Your rabbi will be able to discuss with you the Jewish position on the free will vs. determinism issue, and your knowledge of Judaism will be all the better for it,” wrote Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin on JewishJournal.com.
“The Adjustment Bureau” might prompt questions of freedom and sovereignty, but it really won’t further a good in-house discussion between Christians. The questions are more first-order than these debates.This film might, though, prompt us to see in our neighbors a sense of helplessness, a sense of captivity, and a rage that, just maybe, is misdirected toward God. And, perhaps, the film will spur us to wonder whether our neighbors are feeling something of what is true for all of us, apart from the liberating power of the devil-defeating Cross: “We are being chased,” wrote Russell Moore, the Dean of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Faith-friendly audiences knew exactly what they were getting into with this film. Of course they were given marketing materials that spelled out for them the film’s religious design as clearly as one of the Chairman’s nifty life maps. The lay audience was given fewer cues. I do suppose those fedoras should have tipped us off—dapper hats having long been a symbol of guardian angels in film from Harry Travers in “It’s a Wonderful Life” to Denzel Washington in “The Preacher’s Wife.”
More interesting than its theological underpinnings, is what “The Adjustment Bureau” says about how Hollywood views faith and God and the fact that even though smart, philosophically astute film makers are making films that play around with the tough questions about faith, Hollywood believes they need to trick us into seeing them. I guess the question is: Who is really adjusting whom?
Jo Piazza is a Masters candidate in Religious Studies at NYU. Her work has appeared in theWall Street Journal, The New York Times, Daily Beast and CNN. Her first book, Celebrity Inc.: Inside the Business of Being Famous is out in May.