April 7, 2011

“Adjustment Bureau” Adjusts Individual Lives to Fit Institutional Narratives

The Adjustment BureauThe Adjustment Bureau is a film about narratives, and about who has the power to tell them.  Based loosely on the  1954  Philip K. Dick short story, “Adjustment Team,” it tells of the story of the effort by one man (played by Matt Damon) to wrest control over his own life from larger forces. Meanwhile, those forces, in the institution of the “Adjustment Bureau,” maintain that control of human destiny lies in their hands.

“You only have the appearance of free will,” Damon is instructed by one of the elders in the Bureau, an organization that appears to be a cross between a Ford factory and Heaven. The Adjustment Bureau wants Damon, a New York senator, to be president and change the course of world events. They fear that if Damon follows his own heart, and his love for a ballerina, he will lose his ambition.

The film offers much food for thought at a moment when personal struggles to maintain personal control over  individual destinies, despite the larger forces of nature and politics, are playing out dramatically on virtually every continent.  In Japan, in Libya, in the American Midwest, in Australia, where floods devastated the Queensland coast this winter.

One can’t help but wonder whether the redemptive possibilities that Dick’s vision offers is a fantasy or a model we can take to heart.  It also asks us to consider how much agency the institutions that drive our lives possess: our governments, banks, universities, and companies.  In The Adjustment Bureau, the institution is deeply interested in the course of individuals’ actions, but only to the extent that they align with the larger intentions of the organization.

Either way, the dramatic conflict between the determinism of the faceless institutions in which we live and the protagonists, who battle that determinism, rings true.  And recognizing the inherent tension between individuals and institutions, instead of pasting them over, is a useful step in teasing out the real story of how we realize our ambitions.

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