January/February 2012

Philosophical Films: The Adjustment Bureau’s Will, Won’t Be Done

Written by David Cox

The question of whether or not human beings possess free will has kept philosophers out of mischief for millennia. The case for determinism may look neat, yet it's always been resisted. For if there's no free will, there's no moral responsibility and thus no basis for justice.

Accomplishments merit no praise, and love is devalued. Above all, our species loses the dignity we're so eager to accord it.

In this fight, Hollywood has had few doubts about which dog to back. After all, drama in which the antagonists were mere automatons would hardly be big box-office. Human triumph over the surly forces of destiny has therefore come to be favoured. Clint Eastwood's Invictus pretty much summed things up. "I am the master of my fate," it seemed to be telling us, and if you're not you're a wimp.

Now Matt Damon is back from Nelson Mandela's shadow to address the issue a little more thoughtfully. The Adjustment Bureau presents itself as yet another paean to free will, but this time the concept is contrasted with the alternative. It emerges less than wholly unscathed.

Somehow, Damon's David Norris must outrun his fate in a world in which human destiny is preordained. To create the scope for this, George Nolfi's reworking of a Philip K Dick story adopts the theological version of determinism, presumably because arranging for human agency to coexist with a more straightforward variety would have been even more difficult.

Yet postulating an intelligence capable of shaping events only highlights familiar problems. Why, for example, should the controlling power have felt obliged to burden us mere mortals with our own supposed autonomy? In the film, as elsewhere, it's to test our mettle. Why an entity capable of planning the future should feel required to run such trials remains a puzzle.

The film would have us believe that if David can just break free from a prescripted flowchart, he can shape his own destiny. Yet it can't help showing us that what he supposes to be his own urges already bear the imprint of biological, cultural and/or psychological determinism.

David seeks to evade his fate so he can carve out a future with Emily Blunt's Elise. Yet he didn't come by his desire for her through any choice of his own. Romantic love may be a product of pheromones, social conditioning or genetic predisposition, but by common consent it ruthlessly commandeers the hearts of those it ensnares. David could have resolved the problem with which he's presented if he'd been capable of willing himself to fall out of love with Elise, yet this is a freedom that remains denied to him.

David is invited to choose between love and career. However, he can make only one choice, because he's David. He hasn't made himself what he is; childhood experience together with parental example and perhaps hereditary traits are credited with much of this task. Meanwhile, Elise informs us that to be a great dancer you must be born with the right body. To bewitch a big-shot politician as dishy as David, you may well need much the same thing. In both of these characters' cases, willpower alone wouldn't have cut it; nurture and nature were calling the shots.

It's not just the feasibility of free will that's cast into doubt; even its desirability starts to look dodgy. David gets rewarded for choosing the dangers of self-realisation over the security of submission. Yet the terrors of the course he takes seem overwhelming; he has to be allowed to evade them through what seems a fraudulent device. If this is what it takes to create your own essence, some filmgoers may decide: "Rather him than me."

After all, though the movies may be sold on free will, the rest of us are perhaps less certain. We're well aware that to be the master of your fate can have its downside. We're happy enough to choose mocha over espresso, but prefer to leave our healthcare to the state. We expect applause for our achievements, but attribute our failures to the system. We like to think of our transgressions as caused less by our own knavery than by the wrong genes or maltreatment in childhood.

The Adjustment Bureau wants to tell us that our destiny is within our grasp. It hints, however, at a different message: free will doesn't exist, and if it did, we wouldn't want it.