Harry (Anthony Mackie) is tired. He’s been working long hours to ensure that the human population stays on track, a member of a team of supernatural guardians in The Adjustment Bureau. Harry’s current assignment has him tailing the politician David Norris (Matt Damon), a New York politician whose future is crucially important for the planet. Alas, poor Harry is so tired that he dozes off on his bench in the park, and so misses the seconds’ worth of delay he’s supposed to impose on David, just long enough to keep him from making his bus.
Harry’s error is grave—or so he hears from his supervisor, Richardson (John Slattery). This leaves Harry looking partly regretful and partly horrified, his book on David’s future showing a change in course—marked by an ominous red line set among seeming hieroglyphs—as he holds it in his hand. All this sets up for David’s startling discovery that the guardians exist when he walks in on them making an adjustment on his friend and manager, Charlie (Michael Kelly). Caught zapping Charlie with a sinister light-device (reminiscent of Men in Black‘s Neuralyzer), the guardians spot David and chase him down. No human can know they exist, lest their purpose be ruined.
That purpose, Richardson explains, is to have people believe they’re making decisions for themselves, even though their paths are set within a Plan. Recalling the much-cited 1966 Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” but officially inspired by a 1954 short story by Phillip K. Dick, the film acts at first as though it’s posing a serious philosophical question about the seeming contradiction between free will and fate; though it never raises the issue of God or institutional religion per se, this plainly lies beneath. The guardians, who wear slim suits and fedoras, refer to the Chairman (whom they’ve never seen) and also have a hierarchy within their corps, including an especially persuasive adjuster, Thompson (Terence Stamp), also known as the Hammer.
He’s called in—after much threatening that he will be called in—when David resists Richardson’s direction that he behave himself. Once he knows that his own Plan doesn’t allow him to date the girl of his dreams—a professional dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt)—David is determined to do just that. While it would seem that zapping David’s brain would be a solution, apparently he’s so stubborn and so unusual that the guardians must find another way, that is, convincing him to act against his will.
They’re helped in this effort by their super-secret trick: they can pass through doors anywhere in the city and end up in a wholly other location. (It appears there’s a system to which door can open where—Richardson complains, “I hate downtown!”—but the portals’ seeming randomness creates a jolt of energy once David gets hold of a fedora, the ticket to such transport, and a chase takes them to the Museum of Modern Art, the Statue of Liberty, and Yankee Stadium.) These sequences, nonsensical as well as thrilling, help to distract from the film’s more pedestrian plotting.
This is premised on the guardians’ efforts to cajole David with promises of a brilliant career: if he follows his path, he’ll be U.S. president and Elise will be a world-renowned modern dancer and choreographer. The guardians resent his “loose cannon” bent, while he’s unimpressed by their assurances that he will change the world (for good, you presume). Still, he initially agrees to terms, mainly because he seems to have no options. As he begins to find his way around the path, however, Richardson and then Thompson start using physical force (seeming “accidents”) to bully him.
Harry, however, sees his mission differently. That early look of regret, it turns out, has less to do with his moment of failure as with his ongoing questions about the Plan. Apparently long restive concerning his job, Harry is—rather oddly—the only black individual in The Adjustment Bureau‘s New York with a speaking part (apart from Jesse Jackson, one of David’s political supporters). No matter the possible coincidence of casting, the visual—and so, political—effect is striking. Harry is not only sympathetic to David’s desire to make his own decisions, he’s also willing to share knowledge long restricted to members of the rigidly conformist Bureau. Harry’s inclined to grant what looks like personal decision-making to David, future world-saver.
It’s not a little annoying that the primary form this decision-making takes here is the romance. David’s fixated on being with Elise, who is too frequently depicted as making not-so-smart decisions regarding an ex, while fretting over David’s intermittent appearances in her life. And as she embodies his chosen fate, he is also making decisions regarding her future, assuming—as the movie encourages you to do—that if he exercises free will then she will too, and that both might fulfill their destinies even if they’re free.
It’s a puzzle but also pretty to think so, even if it’s a white couple’s marriage plot facilitated by someone who might be mistaken for a magical Negro. It helps that Mackie is so convincing as an angel-guardian-mad-man, out of time but also smart about it. Harry’s a world-saver, too, even if no one knows it.