Reliving the Cold War

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny probably won’t make a lasting impression on people not already invested in its titular character.

Can't live without it. Ciudad de la Habana, Cuba.

But what makes the film hard to remember is also what makes it worth remembering.

Referencing the four previous instalments in the franchise begun by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny helps us make sense of their ideological dimension.

Despite their devotion to the storytelling mode of classic Hollywood, the adventures of Indiana Jones have excited audiences worldwide.

This appeal derives from a subtle distinction they make between their protagonist’s Americanness and the actually existing United States.

That helps to explain why Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, reducing its star Harrison Ford to tears.

It’s not a bad film. Director James Mangold does a decent job of approximating Steven Spielberg’s approach to storytelling. And the acting is considerably better than is typical for the action genre these days.

But Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny also isn’t the type of fare typically applauded at Cannes, which has historically preferred the films of American directors working outside of Hollywood. Its appeal in that context demonstrates that even a franchise as outwardly patriotic as this one has an ambivalent relationship with the United States.

Although rooting for Indy might seem to be the same thing as rooting for American imperialism, things were never that simple.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny reveals the structural ambivalence that was already apparent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, directing our attention to aspects of the franchise that were previously hiding in plain sight.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that the new film is acutely self-aware of its datedness.

In the case of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, what’s new is old. Literally.

The previous instalment in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), had already confronted us with the distressing realisation that the hero and his companions are subject to the depredations of time.

Although Harrison Ford looked frayed, this didn’t come as a huge shock to audiences. He had remained one of Hollywood’s biggest stars throughout the 1990s.

But seeing Karen Allen reprise her role from Raiders of the Lost Ark as Marian Ravenwood did shock them because she had not been prominently featured in a film for a good while.

This time, though, there is no escaping the mortal decline of our hero.

Not only does Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny repeatedly remind us that Indy is now an old man, advance discussion of the film concentrated on the fact that Harrison Ford is now an octogenarian.

The opening sequence, in which computer software is used to de-age Indy so that he can once again return to battling real Nazis, did not come as a surprise.

Everyone who has watched the previous instalments will be waiting for the big reveal when the bag over Indy’s head is pulled off, and we get to decide how convincing this transformation is.

To my mind, it works well. Although I never fully forgot that I was being deceived by technology, I appreciated the fact that I could still perceive the Harrison Ford of today acting beneath that digital mask.

Having said that, although the opening sequence was probably necessary to lure in moviegoers reluctant to return to the franchise after fifteen years, it doesn’t align emotionally with the story that follows.

The remainder of the film concerns a search for the missing half of an ancient device – the dial of destiny from the title – that improbably permits its possessor to travel back in time.

As is almost always the case with time-travel narratives, there are many holes in this plot.

But because we are told that the great Greek mathematician Archimedes invented this “time turner” to exploit fissures in time, it seems silly to expose flaws of logic.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny assigns audiences the task of suspending disbelief, both in watching the de-aged Harrison Ford of the opening sequence and in its figurative de-ageing of the tried-and-true conflict between Indy’s go-it-alone American and the evil Nazis who conspire against him.

The film makes it easier to pull this off by thematising the American government’s postwar repurposing of German rocket scientists.

This widens the divide between Indy and the shadowy bureaucrats who want to exploit his discoveries, one which was already apparent by the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Significantly, the present-day timeline of the narrative takes place in the wake of the first moon landing in 1969, right after Professor Jones — Indy’s Clark Kent-like professional identity — has retired from his teaching duties at Hunter College in New York City.

In the first scenes set there, we are reminded of the immensely positive reception given to the astronauts.

But the longer we spend in that portion of the story, the more apparent it becomes that the compromises necessary to beat the Soviets to the moon came at a very high moral cost.

The nostalgia that powered the initial Cold War trilogy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) has been replaced by nostalgia for the franchise itself.

Even that original nostalgia was out of step with the lived experience of its creators.

Like Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark’s producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg grew up in the 1950s, when the nineteenth-century imperialism exemplified by the United Kingdom and France was rapidly fading in a geopolitical landscape dominated by the world’s new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War trilogy evokes a time when Hollywood adventure stories offered audiences a temporary escape from their humdrum lives and the depressing reality of postwar American power when the fear of a nuclear holocaust was everywhere.

Although inhabitants of Latin America and the Pacific basin were acutely aware that the imperialism of the United States had come into its own by the early twentieth century, people in the developed world still tended to think of it as an upstart “little brother” before World War II, easier to stomach than its Old World counterparts because it did not yet know its own strength.

That’s the reason why Disneyland built its Indiana Jones theme park ride in Adventureland, amid a mise-an-scène evocative of colonial Africa and Asia and adjacent to Frontierland, with its treatment of the Wild West, and Old New Orleans, which conjures the least American city in the United States.

This portion of the park converts time into space, transforming history into a walkable destination, just as the Cold War trilogy turned it into a watchable one.

In other words, the sense of pleasurable datedness those first three films communicate went hand in hand with a reluctance to confront American hegemony directly.

That’s why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the first attempt to revive the Indian Jones franchise for post-Cold War times, feels less successful in retrospect than it actually was.

Because the story turns on the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, it cannot offer the escapism of the first three films.

Developed in the years following 9/11, after the developed world had decisively pivoted towards the problem of terrorism, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was able to evoke a different kind of nostalgia, recalling the absurdity of the period when the Cold War was running hottest.

Because that kind of nostalgia is much harder to feel right now, when the potential for a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the United States once again looms large, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny understandably turns back the clock to give us the kind of classic Nazi antagonists featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

By setting the bulk of its story in 1969, however, the new film permits us to discern the interconnectedness between the original Cold War trilogy’s mode of nostalgia for classic pre-World War II imperialism; nostalgia for the superpower-dominated 1950s, when Baby Boomers were young; and our own nostalgia for a less technologically malleable existence, in which evidence of the passage of time could not be so easily disappeared from view.

Ironically, Indian Jones and the Dial of Destiny has much more in common with the strange 2017 revival of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks than the average summer blockbuster.

Just as that Showtime series confronts us with the disturbing prospect of a fictional world in which almost everything has grown worse, not to mention once-youthful actors whose faces mirror the wear and tear inscribed on our own, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny shows us the decayed underside of our evergreen cultural fantasies.

As badly as we might want to believe that it’s possible to return to the simpler times in which being on the right side of history simply required punching Nazis, the contrast between Harrison Ford’s de-aged face in the opening sequence and the way he looks throughout the remainder of the film makes it painfully clear how much knowledge we lose when we let our political convictions undergo the equivalent of plastic surgery.

In the end, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s most powerful insight is that we deface the past when we try to remove the lines it leaves on the face of existence.

Photograph courtesy of Jaume Escofet. Published under a Creative Commons license.