Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Heartbreaker (L'arnacoeur) -- common interests and unhappy couples

Director: Pascal Chaumeil, 2010. (PG-13)

Matchmakers work to bring two people together to form a marriage made in heaven. But what if the couple is mismatched and the marriage seems doomed to become a hell on earth? Then you call on a matchbreaker, or a professional heartbreaker, such as Alex (Romain Duris) in this French farce/rom-com.

With slim physique, two-day growth and sexy charm, Alex has everything he needs to take on the job of breaking up undesired partnerships. Working with his sister Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and her husband Marc (Francois Damiens), the actress and technologist, Alex is a professional marriage-derailer. Applying his two rules, to only work with unhappy couples and to never fall in love with the mark, he wins the girl’s heart each time. But then he turns on the tears and breaks up with her. He tells each one she deserves better than him, as he has been hurt too much. Surprisingly, each woman thanks him even as he leaves her.

The first ethical question is whether it is OK to break up an unhappy couple and hence stop them from getting married. If a man and woman are not in love but are caught in a relationship that neither can break, then it may be appropriate to offer help. The apostle Paul entreats us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). We have a responsibility for the welfare of those in our faith family, and those we love. However, when love has blinded someone’s eyes their ears may be closed to the truth. They may not want to hear about the reality of the relationship, hoping against hope that things will work out. Friends are often ignored. In this sense, Alex’s two rules make sense to help and not further hurt the unlucky woman. In the long run, she is better off having fallen for his ruse. But the practice of the heartbreaker is deceptive, even if the end justifies the means. Using a sinful means taints the result.

With bills overdue and loan sharks on the prowl, when Juliette’s father approaches him to break up his daughter’s impending marriage, Alex violates his first rule. Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) is rich and beautiful and very much in love with her English fiancĂ© Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln). And with the marriage just 10 days away, Alex has his work cut out to break a heart without breaking his second rule.

Acting as a personal security guard, Alex gets close to Juliette in Monte Carlo. Knowing her tastes from the research of his backup pair, he begins to use these as if they were his tastes, too, from favorite movies (Dirty Dancing) to favorite music (George Michael). In this way, their “common interests” bring them creepily together very quickly while Jonathan is away in England.

Here is a fallacy: interests that are exactly the same will create a harmonious relationship. It may spark an initial attraction, but over time it is the differences that amplify the attraction, not the similarities. Such differences bring intrigue and mystique, and cause us to search out the unknown in the other. They actually help each one to grow and develop as they learn more and spark new interests. Just as in magnetism, so too in life: opposites attract.

Unlike many French films, Heartbreaker moves along at a good pace and has many very funny moments. It does resort to some romantic comedy tropes, especially toward the end, but this is to be expected. The central couple has a charming chemistry, but it is never explained why Juliette’s father wants the marriage prevented, since Jonathan is a very eligible bachelor with no obvious faults.

The second ethical question is whether it is OK to break up a happy couple intent on marriage. Here, the right thing to do would be to endorse their betrothal and celebrate their nuptials. Why would a friend or father want to separate two people who seem perfectly matched for one another? It would appear to be only for selfish reasons. Paul’s advice here is, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3). When we place our own interests above our friends and then compound it by acting deceptively to destroy a relationship, we have ventured deep into sinful territory.

However you answer these two key questions, you can’t help rooting for Alex with his light and elegant Gallic grace. A heartbreaker he is. . . even when it may end up being his own heart that is broken!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) -- Guilt and Innocence


Director: Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970. (NR) 

If you were asked to name the greatest heists movies of all time, what films would come to mind? Maybe Heat or The Italian Job. Probably Oceans 11. You’d likely not include Le Cercle Rouge; you’ve probably not even seen it. But it is quite possibly the greatest French heist film.

As French films go, this is long and languid. The first hour is spent developing character, tone and atmosphere, without especially advancing the plot. It is only in the second hour of this 140 minute movie, that the heist is planned and executed.

There are four key characters, three introduced in the first act. Noteworthy is the absence of any female roles. This is a masculine movie set in a man’s world.

Corey (Alain Delon) is the first character. A suave, mustachioed criminal, he is about to be released from prison after five years. Before gaining his freedom, a crooked guard presses him to commit the perfect crime: robbing a Parisian jewelry store. On the day he is released, he confronts and robs a former friend and criminal, then buys a car.

That same day, criminal suspect Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) is being transported by train to be indicted and face justice. Handcuffed to his sleeper-cabin bed, he manages to pick the lock, jump through the window and flee into the wintry fields. Inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil in his final performance), who had been accompanying him, sets a massive manhunt in place, but to no avail. Plodding and patient, he pursues Vogel through the film, being its only positive presence. He is the one who hears and challenges the moral of the movie. But we’ll come back to that.

The apparent philosophical meaning of the title, The Red Circle, is that those who are meant to meet will meet in this circle. And Vogel is meant to meet Corey. When he hides in Corey’s trunk, their meeting is destined to happen. Through a lucky break, Corey manages to get through the police roadblock. Chance, then brings these two criminals together. And they agree to commit the heist. Needing a third team member, a marksman, they call on an acquaintance of Vogel’s: Jansen (Yves Montand), an ex-police marksman, who is now an alcoholic. This is the trio that will hit the store.

After the lengthy prelude to the heist, writer-director Melville makes a stunning choice to shoot the robbery in almost real-time. The heist takes up almost half an hour, during which there is no dialog or background music. It is virtually silent, adding to the growing tension. This surely stands as one of the finest robberies in screen history.

Yet for all this, Le Cercle Rouge is like a French film noir sans the femme fatale. It is a world of moral darkness, with little hope. The key theme is stated by the police chief: “All men are guilty. They’re born innocent but it doesn’t last.” As if the viewer might miss this, he later repeats it to Mattei directly, “And don’t forget. All guilty.” The cop responds with a question: “Even policeman?” But the chief is clear: “All men, Mr. Mattei.”

Here, then, are the themes: guilt and innocence. And here are two questions to consider: are all people guilty? And are all people born innocent?

With respect to the first question, the Bible is clear: “For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one;’“ (Rom. 3:9-10). We would like to consider ourselves pure and righteous and good. But this is not so. Paul goes on, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our guilt condemns us before the judgment seat of God. None is innocent at this bar.

But were we innocent at birth and since we fallen from this state? Again, the Bible answers this question with clarity and specificity. King David, in one of his most famous psalms says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psa. 51:5). Sadly, we have inherited the nature of sin from our original father, Adam (Gen. 3:6). At birth we emerge from the womb with a corrupt nature (Jer. 17:9). Like Melville’s vision, we are desperately dark and depraved. The world is a harsh place.

Unlike Le Cercle Rouge, though, we are destined to meet Jesus in the red circle, the circle of his blood. He shed his blood (Rom. 3:25), giving up his life, to pay the debt of our sin. When we meet him and fall at his feet as followers, he gives us a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17) and a second chance at life. We are not destined to be criminals forever like Corey or Vogel. We can be clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Gal. 3:27). But we must accept and embrace Christ. Only in his red circle will we find hope and life.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, June 13, 2011

8 Women (8 Femmes) -- Secrets and their Impact

Director: François Ozon, 2002. (R) 

8 Women could be pointing to the “who’s who” of French actresses who comprise the cast. Topped by Catherine Deneuve (A Christmas Tale), possibly the greatest living French actress, she is joined by Isabelle Huppert (Thank You for the Chocolate), Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Beart to name just a few. In fact, though, the 8 women are the suspects in a murder in this French musical murder-mystery.

It is Christmas in the snowy French countryside in the 1950s. As a family gathers together to celebrate the holiday, the patriarch, a wealthy industrialist is discovered murdered in his bedroom. Seven women are together in the living room and one other joins them. Any one of them could be the murderer. It could be his wife Gaby (Deneuve), his two daughters Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) and Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), his neurotic and spinsterly sister-in-law Augustine (Huppert), his greedy and miserly mother-in-law Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), his floozy sister Pierrette (Ardant), his loyal cook Chanel (Firmine Richard) or his new sexy maid Louise (Beart). Each has a motive. Each has a secret.

When they find the phone line has been cut, the car has been damaged and the gate has been blocked, they realize they are isolated in the house and one of them is the killer. But which is it? As the film progresses, their secrets are revealed, shocking each other and showing there is more to each one than meets the eye.

Ozon gives each woman a song to sing along the way. These are mostly short but the lyrics are a little odd. They probably make more sense to the French, but the English subtitles make the songs seem somewhat random. Still, the film is farcical and fun, even if it veers to the melodramatic at a few points.

Familial and personal secrets are the ethical theme that fuels the film. The point here, of course, is that all the secrets that emerge are a result of sin. And a veritable array of sins it is, from greed (Isa. 57:17, Rom. 1:29) to jealousy (Rom. 13:13), from sex (Exod. 20:14) to stealing (Exod. 20:15). Having sinned, the women wanted to hide their deeds. But sin has consequences, and when the truth comes out, as it always does, the impact is terrible. The strong relational ties from the beginning of the film have become damaged, even severed, by the end.

It is clear, though, that if these women had not sinned they would have no secrets. Moreover, if they had come clean and confessed the power of the secret would have been removed. Only by virtue of the personal deceit did the women put themselves in a position of vulnerability.

The storyline illustrates the principle of leaving a life of transparency with our family, friends and coworkers. When we are open and admit our faults and failures, even our sins, we can receive forgiveness. God himself offers forgives us when we sin, if we confess before him (1 Jn. 1:9). The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ provided the necessary atonement for all sin (Rom. 3:25, Col. 2:13), at all times (Heb. 7:27). . . . even for these 8 women!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 10, 2011

Au Hasard Balthazar -- Cruelty, humility and suffering

Director: Robert Bresson, 1966. (NR) 

Many critics consider Au Hasard Balthazar to be Bresson’s finest film, a masterpiece of artistic French cinema. I found it to be slow and boring.

The story is a simple but sad one, centered on a donkey, Balthazar, and its first owner, Marie. Their lives offer parallels as both grow, one retaining humility and innocence, the other falling from innocence and tenderness to corruption and despair. More than this, though, it is the story of man’s cruelty to the innocent captured in these two lives.

The film opens with a Schubert piano sonata playing in the background. But this is suddenly and discordantly interrupted by a donkey braying. The newborn foal Balthazar is suckling from his mother. This juxtaposition of the beautiful and the ugly epitomize this film, setting the tone for what is to come.

The young Marie, holidaying in a village in France with her friend Jacques and his family, persuades her father to buy the donkey and names him Balthazar. This idyllic, almost Edenic, picture presents mankind (in the person of Marie) in tune with nature (via the land and the donkey). But this harmony is destined to end, and Bresson conveys the fleetingness of youthful innocence as he abruptly moves the film forward cuts a decade.

Marie’s family have moved back to the farm. Now, though, there is a ruffian, Gerard, who pursues her. Clad in a leather-jacket this would-be gangster leads his friends on mopeds and bicycles. He wants Marie for her innocence, to take it and destroy it. Further, his sadistic nature emerges from his brutal treatment of Balthazar.

In one scene, Gerard cannot get the donkey to move, so he ties a paper to the donkey’s tail and sets it alight.

As Marie passively gives in to Gerard’s advances, Balthazar finds himself moving from owner to owner, each time somehow finding his way back to Marie. But it is a changed Marie, whose innocence is escaping. She allows Gerard to both hurt the animal and have his way with her.

By the end of the film, Gerard has literally stripped her naked, beaten her and left her weeping alone in the corner of a room, like an animal. His cruelty has achieved its goal.

As an auteur, Bresson retained complete control of his film creations. He saw film-making as art, distinct from the entertainment made in Hollywood. To create this art, he adopted an ascetic approach, stripping the film and each scene down to its barest essentials. He shifted the vantage point of the camera to focus on details, omitting things most directors desired, like portraits. In Au Hasard Balthazar, Bresson makes much of showing feet and hands, not torsos and heads. He also has the actors rehearse and rehearse until the scenes become second-nature and they are re-enacting his vision, rather than acting and bringing in their own vision. In this way, the actors become almost emotionless, mechanically delivering their lines, and this is apparent in many of the scenes here.

Bresson keeps the soundtrack sparse, so that the few noises we hear take on added significance. The dialog is slim, with even fewer words than usual for the director.

Watching a Bresson film is not entertaining. It is hard work; he demands much from an audience. Some, like me, found this too much here, although I did appreciate Pickpocket, another of his films.

Bresson also likes to focus on effect rather than cause. He rarely shows us scenes in sequence, where we would understand the cause. Instead, he edits his films to match real life, with scenes jumping around haphazardly as if by chance. Indeed, the title translates as “By chance Balthazar,” as if all of the donkey’s life (and ours) occurs by chance.

Despite the lack of reference to God, Au Hasard Balthazar is a spiritual film, offering a number of glimpses into themes like suffering and sin. This is not surprising given that Bresson was Catholic. Even the choice of the donkey and his name is important. Bresson commented that he gave the donkey the name Balthazar since it is biblical. It is commonly attributed to be that of one of the three wise men who visited the Christ child (Matt. 2:9-12). It points to the simple and humble wisdom that this beast of burden has, in contrast to the more educated but proud people around him.

The animal, too, points to the Bible. A donkey was the beast that carried Mary, mother of Jesus, to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Three decades later, it was a donkey that carried this same Jesus as he triumphantly entered Jerusalem at the beginning of passion week (Matt. 21:5), the week that culminated in his crucifixion and resurrection.

Balthazar is a beast whose life knows mostly work and suffering. Yet he seems to go about this work with a gentleness and humility, a dutiful demeanor. Though just an animal, he stands in stark contrast to those around him. Even as he is being beaten, he accepts it, much like Jesus accepted his beating in silence (). At the climax, when the donkey comes to the end of his life, he is surrounded by a flock of sheep. It is among the sheep, that he lays down and breathes out his last, having been mortally wounded in his side. The allusion to Christ, the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11), is clear, though the donkey is no savior.

The donkey’s owners, however, represent the various vices common to man. Marie’s father is proud, too proud to humble himself for the good of his family. His pride is his downfall, and the cause of his family’s poverty. Pride is a serious sin (Prov. 8:13); humility is its opposite (Prov. 11:2).

Another owner is a homeless drunk, who roams from town to town seeking what he can. He finds in Balthazar a means to buy drink. The Bible gives warning against getting drunk (Prov. 20:1), although there is no injunction against enjoying alcohol in moderation. Rather, we should be drunk with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18), allowing him and not alcoholic spirits to take control of our minds and bodies.

Another owner is focused solely on money. He whips Balthazar as he turns circles around the well. His god is mammon, and he wants nothing more than earthly riches. He reminds us of the rich fool that Jesus spoke of (Lk. 12:13-21), who was so wrapped up in his commercial endeavors that he did not realize his life was about to be taken, leaving his full barns for someone else.

Gerard, though not his owner, interacts with Balthazar throughout. He is a liar and a cheat. He represents the evil that seeks to enslave or destroy others. Though not Satan, he characterizes that sly serpent whose chief end is to destroy (Jn. 10:10). His influence brings down all he comes into contact with. One scene shows him destroying a cafe during a free party just for the sake of it, to damage someone else’s property and to humiliate the host. It is Gerard who is the chief antagonist, focused on taking Marie down the spiral into darkness.

Marie is the other chief character. Beginning as a gentle, tender girl who loves Balthazar, her fatal attraction to Gerard is her downfall. Though it is apparent to her and her parents that he is no good, yet her passivity dooms her. She, like Balthazar, is always suffering. But whereas Balthazar is an amoral creature not given a choice in his actions, she is a moral person whose choices lead to her downfall. She never finds the love she desires.

In Marie, Bresson communicates that even a sweet and saintly person falls prey to inner and outer sin. Though she begins with childlike innocence by the end, cynicism has replaced this and she is broken. We are like Marie, not able on our own to maintain a purity and innocence of character. We possess a sin nature that veers us away from God and away from good. We end up broken, if we do not find our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class -- Choices and Differences

Director: Matthew Vaughn, 2011. (PG-13)

In the alternate world imagined by Stan Lee and the Marvel comic-book writers, mutants are all around us. But in the early 1960s era of the civil rights movement, the mutants relied on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy later made famous by the military’s approach to gay rights. They simply remained hidden, believing themselves alone and different. This atmosphere sets the scene for the bulk of this prequel.

It actually starts two decades earlier. In the prolog we see the origins of the two heroes, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), who will become Magneto, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Atonement), who will become Professor X. Their origins are as different as their characters’ personalities.

Revisiting footage from an earlier X-Men film, Erik is ripped from his mother’s embrace as Nazis push his parents towards the concentration camps, while he is destined for experimentation. In the lab, he meets a scientist who would become the powerful super-villain in the heart of this film: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). It is the German Shaw who shows Erik how to harness his metal-manipulating magnetic powers: through his anger. But the first lesson comes at a painful cost, one that defines Erik forever.

Charles Xavier, on the other hand, grows up in a mansion in New York despite being British. It is here that he meets Raven, a young shape-shifting mutant who would become Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone). Meeting her provides both with the surprising news that there are other mutants. They are not alone, after all. She becomes a surrogate sister, though she has desires on him.

Ten years ago Bryan Singer rebooted the super-hero genre with the original X-Men film. Here, he produces this terrific prequel from a script he co-wrote. Working with a strong cast, director Vaughn creates a James Bond-like movie, with intricate gadgets and toys (a submarine inside a luxury liner) and lingerie-clad girls, a film that satisfies with its action sequences and yet is built on the character development between the leads. McAvoy infuses Xavier with the right level of youthful charm and innocence to counter Erik’s cynicism and violence. Their chemistry gives the film its depth. And Kevin Bacon’s delicious world-ruling hunger makes him a perfect arch-villain.

The grown Xavier runs into CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, 28 Weeks Later) when she is after an expert on mutations. As a telepath, he knows she has seen others like him and Raven, and is ready to join her. She is after Shaw, who is using his own telepath Emma Frost (January Jones) to put the weapons in place to create the Cuban Missile crisis. Meanwhile, Erik is on a personal mission of vengeance against the Nazis and looking specifically for Shaw.

We see Erik hunting and killing the Germans who routinely murdered Jews during the war. He is an avenging angel of destruction. But we see, too, the impact of the atrocities of that war on his psyche. He has become a relentless killing machine, thriving on it, even enjoying it.

Vengeance does this. It carves away at our character until any love or mercy we might have experienced is gone, killed off by this cancer. It is not surprising that the apostle Paul derided this, quoting the Mosaic Law (Deut. 32:35), “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Vengeance belongs to God, not to man.

When Xavier meets Erik while both are hunting for Shaw, he recruits him. Together, they go in search of other mutants, enlisting them in their new “school” for mutants, courtesy of the CIA. In one poignant scene, a handful of these mutants, who have given themselves new names based on their powers, are observed by regular CIA agents who comment that the circus is in town. Here is the heart of the X-Men stories. They are different and hence mocked, scorned or feared.

For millennia, people groups have found themselves to be different from those around them. Separated by language at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), they have formed their own cultures and subcultures. For example, the Israelites were a nation apart from the Philistines and Egyptians. In the 20th century, Jews were targeted by the Nazis, labeled as sub-human. When people feel different, they naturally gather in like-communities, thereby separating themselves from the world. This natural cycle reinforces what the external world thinks of them, and often exacerbates the world’s fear.

Even Christian communities have been like this. The first monasteries were formed by Christians who wanted to separate themselves from the world. But Christians are called to be in the world, even while we are not a part of the world (Jn. 17:15-18). If we separate from those who do not know Jesus, how will they ever hear the liberating message of the gospel (Rom. 10:14)? We must unite with our fellow followers of Jesus, regardless of color or race, and together live out the gospel message before a world that might choose to persecute us.

The middle portion of the film focuses on Xavier’s teaching his small team how to control their powers. He realizes this is war between two different groups of mutants with the world of humans in the balance. Shaw and his murderous team want to destroy the world and reclaim it for the more powerful mutantkind. He is willing to stop at nothing, killing anyone in his way, to accomplish this goal. He would prefer, however, that the other mutants would join him and his “super-race”. (Does this sound like Hitler and his Aryan ideals?) Xavier, on the other hand, feels a sense of responsibility for humanity. He realizes he is still human, though mutated to be more powerful than most.

Xavier stands in contrast to both Shaw and Erik. His upbringing as a rich kid left him with a powerful sense of obligation. He understood that privilege brings responsibility. He is willing to selflessly commit himself to help mankind, even if that very same group turns against him as being different, a freak. He sees beyond their short-sightedness. Shaw is selfish and evil, wanting to rule with an iron-fist. His philosophy is the survival of the fittest and the elimination of those weaker than him. Erik can only feel the pain inflicted by the Nazis and is determined to payback that pain with interest. He lives a self-centered life. Even while he is part of Xavier’s team, he is focused on his mission to kill Shaw. He realizes that the world will not thank them for saving them from Shaw. Rather, they will turn on the mutants like dogs. He is ready to wage war against humanity rather than turning the other cheek.

This reminds us that Jesus came preaching a message of peace (Acts 10:36), of turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), going the extra mile (Matt. 5:41). But he also came as savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14). But the world did not want to hear this. Instead, it turned on him and killed him. He lived an unselfish life, caring for those who were the outcasts of society, not seeking, at that time, a kingdom that was rightfully his. Meekness and mercy are often better than power and politics.

In the third act, with the missile crisis at its peak, the two teams of mutants enter into a thrilling battle above the battle-cruisers from America and Russia below. Clad in yellow and black flight-suits, Xavier’s team look united against Shaw’s villainous forces. But in the end, Erik, now called Magneto challenges Xavier’s philosophy, pitting friend against friend. Blood brothers turn into arch-enemies.

Once more this brings our thoughts back to Jesus. He was surrounded by 12 friends closer than brothers, his band of disciples. Yet one of them out of greed (Jn. 12:4) ultimately disagreed with his philosophy and turned against him, becoming his enemy. Judas entered history as the betrayer, the former blood-brother turned enemy of Jesus (Mk. 14:10).

Twice, once in the middle and then again at the end, the theme of choice emerges. The young mutants in the CIA base are offered the choice by Shaw of joining him in his war against humanity. Some do, some don’t. At the end, Magneto offers the same choice to all the mutants.

We are offered this same choice, not once or twice, in the middle or end of our lives, but many times. Will we choose to remain in darkness, essentially on the side of Satan and the world of fallen humanity (Jn. 12:31)? Or will we choose to join Jesus, our leader of light (Jn. 8:12), who will be the ultimate victor (Gen. 3:15)? He stands, like Magneto, hand open, arm outstretched (Rev. 3:20), waiting for us to join him in his mission of bringing salvation to the world. Like in the X-Men world of Professor X and Magneto, we know the end of the real story. Jesus wins. . . whether we join him or not.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau -- fate/destiny vs free will

Director: George Nolfi, 2011. (PG-13)

The Adjustment Bureau weaves a love story against the backdrop of the philosophical question of fate vs free will, and delivers on both, with only a few plot holes in between. Like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, this is yet another film based on a (short) story from the pen of prolific sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Not quite as good as those, it still stands favorably against most films in this genre.

Matt Damon (Invictus) stars as everyman David Norris, the youngest congressman in the history of New York state, now running for senate. On the brink of winning, events from his youth emerge that cause his rival to jump in the polls and Norris is poised to lose. As he prepares his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria), a dancer hiding from security. Their kiss sparks a nascent romance that is destined to bloom into a full-grown love between them, if permitted.

There’s the rub. Men in suits and 50s-style hats show up at David’s workplace to remove from him her phone number, the only link he has to Elise (since he only knows her first name). As they freeze-frame everyone except David, they are able to chase him and corner him. Then they command him to never see her again. It seems they are agents of fate, working for the Chairman. (Why David is able to run, while everyone else is frozen, is unclear, but he risks being reset, which is akin to being lobotomized, if he does not comply.) They are working to ensure the Chairman’s plan works out, and they constantly refer to the cool books that somehow diagrammatically show the plan as it constantly progresses.

At this point it becomes clear: the Chairman is a synonym for the Sovereign God. Though never seen, he is the one in control of all events. And the agents are angels, with hats not wings.

Angels are true biblical creatures, ministering spirits rarely seen by humans (Heb. 1:14). When they are seen, they often evoke fear (“Do not be afraid” being the most common things angels say to people, e.g. Matt. 1:20; 28:5). But as in the film, angels are simply messengers who do God’s will. They do intervene occasionally in ways that become visible or known to man (Gen. 19), but for the most part we know little of their interactions with humans (Heb. 13:2).

Without Elise’s number, David is unable to track her down. Time passes. But his memory of her remains. He is smitten. When he sees her three years later, he casts everything aside and races after her. Yet reuniting also brings the agents back out in force against him.

Only Harry (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker), one of the agents who questions whether David and Elise ought to be together, offers some support. He tells David some of the secrets of the “business” and why this is happening. It seems, David’s fate portends great things for him and Elise is destined to become a great dancer. Alone, the loneliness of their souls will result in a drive for achievement. But together, neither will achieve greatness; their love will satisfy their souls leaving them in mediocrity.

The Chairman needs their greatness for the benefit of the world, not their mediocrity for their own mutual benefit. With arch-agent Thompson (Terence Stamp) on his trail, a “man” whose heavy-handed tactics never fail, David has to choose love or laurels. He has one chance to prevent Elise making a life-long mistake while evading the men in hats.

Damon and Blunt have a compelling chemistry and are easy on the eyes. But the plot gives minimal backstory and spends little time in developing their relationship. It seems their fateful kiss is all that is needed to send them spinning head over heels in love. Life is rarely like this.

The big theme of The Adjustment Bureau is fate. But it poses the question of whether mankind possesses free will, or whether destiny is dominant. In theology, this is the question of free will versus predestination, or the sovereignty of God.

The Bible is clear that God is sovereign (2 Sam. 7:22). The apostles spoke of the divine purpose, indicating God’s will and foreknowledge of events (Acts. 2:23). Moreover, Jesus in his earthly ministry clearly recognized the events of his life as fulfilling the plans of God predicted by the prophets (Matt. 4:14, Jn. 19:28). The gospel writers underscore this, as they point to fulfillment of prophecy (Matt. 2:5, 17, 23). Further, Paul focused specifically on election and predestination in Romans 9-11. Preceding this, he declared directly on predestination (Rom. 8:28-30):
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Yet the Bible also points to the free will of mankind. Jesus offer (Matt. 11:28), “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” suggests a free choice inherent in each person. Further, the concept of responsibility and accountability for individual sin implies free will. If we are not free to sin, we cannot be held accountable as moral agents.

This tension has been held for centuries. In the film, writer-director Nolfi comes up with a solution, though it seems somewhat unsatisfactory. David is told, humans have the free will to choose in minor decisions, such as what toothpaste to use, what to eat. But they are not free in the major decisions, such as his love for Elise. However, some humans who resist forcefully may eventually win the right to total free will. In other words, the majority of these sheep never know that they have no free will, but a few find out and fight back, and win even against the Chairman and his agents. We just never know who these few are.

Biblically, this same tension has been resolved in different ways. Some tip the balance to free will, adopting an Arminian position. Man’s free will trumps God’s sovereignty. His predestination is then redefined as foreknowledge of what man’s choice will be. There are issues with this. Others go to the other extreme, taking a Calvinist position. There predestination, or even double predestination, becomes primary, and man’s free will is underplayed until it virtually disappears. Others look for a middle ground.

One theologian who offers a balanced perspective is Millard Erickson in his book, “Christian Theology.” He borrows the term “compatibilistic freedom” from Anthony Flew whereby free will is compatible with God’s predestination because God has rendered certain everything that occurs. He posits,
the key to unlocking the problem is the distinction between rendering something certain and rendering it necessary. The former is a matter of God’s decision that something will happen; the latter is a matter of his decreeing that it must occur. In the former case, the human being will not act in a way contrary to the course of action which God has chosen; in the latter case, the human being cannot act in a way contrary to what God has chosen. What we are sayingrenders it certain that a person who could act (or could have acted) differently does in fact act in a particular way (the way that God wills) (p.357)
Our freedom, then, is true freedom though what appeals to a person in making a decision may be controlled by God. The limitations placed on our desires by God will determine what we choose and allow his will to be fulfilled. We have freedom but within these limitations.

However we come out on this spectrum, The Adjustment Bureau encourages us to think about this tension. And that must be something that God wills for us!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs