“It took over 200 years to create the symbol of the presidency,” notes the president in “The Sentinel,” a political thriller with an illicit romance that George Nolfi scripted in 2006. Now he writes and directs a superior “romantic thriller” that spells out what it will take to make David Norris (Matt Damon) president in a foreseeable future. Tinkering with this Brooklyn pol’s itinerary to higher office are strange men-in-hats carrying proto-iPads: their screens map the existential GPS of Norris and all the rest of us. Micromanaging fate is necessary to maintain the exact timetable of human history. Except hat-wearing Harry (Anthony Mackie) is a minute late for a preset spilling of coffee on Norris’ shirt. Norris steps into a venture-capital meeting a bit earlier than expected and sees Harry’s coworkers, some uniformed in long black leather coats like those worn by the firemen in “Fahrenheit 451,” in the act of adjusting the mind of one of his immobilized coworkers. As in “Inception,” subconscious recalibrations alter one’s later “decision trees.” Minimizing “ripples” in the space-time continuum is like maintaining film continuity. “The Adjustment Bureau” posits God not as the Ur-auteur, but as an executive producer with script doctors doing rewrites to steer history since the hunter-gatherers. Nolfi adapts Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story “Adjustment Team,” where these behind-the-scenes bureaucrats orchestrate a discovery of “anthropological remains” in “western Canada” which will lead to international scientists de-escalating the Cold War. “Your freedom is about your choices, not theirs,” speechifies U.S. Senate candidate Norris about his naysayers. For irony’s sake, he is not free to choose his own necktie. On live TV he deconstructs his “authentic” image, admitting to voters that consultants and focus groups decided which of fifty-seven designs to wear on the campaign trail. Nolfi adds all sorts of middlebrow metaphysics about free will. He nicely riffs on the celestial bureaucrats in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 “A Matter of Life and Death” (aka “Stairway to Heaven”) to detail protocol among his adjusters. The winking continues with hokum about the cosmos bending the rules for true love. And thanks to an esoteric skill in turning doorknobs, the Manhattan chase sequences are paradoxically more disconnected, yet less incoherent than usual. With Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp. 106m. (Bill Stamets)
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.