A useful question to ask about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- the only useful question, really, unless you have a stake in ticket, merchandise and DVD sales -- is how much factual history the movie provides in the course of its ho-hum explication of a daft plot. It's not completely perverse or picayune to look at a summer flick this way if you remember The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and George Lucas's admirable commitment to using an entertainment-oriented TV series to educate young viewers about historical moments. In fact, it seems reasonable to infer that the long hiatus since the last Indiana Jones movie, attributed in part to Lucas's pickiness about scripts, had at least something to do with satisfactorily folding real events into the fictional adventure.
Set in 1957, Indiana Jones and TKOTCS, provides a good deal of socio-political context with numerous references to the Red Scare and the blacklist, at least in the early going. Unfortunately, screenwriter David Koepp and director Steven Spielberg are less interested in taking a fresh, incisive look at this period than in tapping into the "experience" of the '50s lodged in our collective consciousness thanks to previous movies and television. To put it another way, the filmmakers, like so many in Hollywood, don't create anything remotely original but evoke, Xerox, pay homage, and poke fun at what came before.
With respect to contemporary commentary -- because an important reason for learning history, after all, is to recognize patterns and pitfalls in our own time -- Indiana Jones and TKOTCS throws in a few gratuitous, vaguely masked references to the Swift-boating of John Kerry and the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. (Investigating Jones's forced involvement in a Russian break-in of a Nevada military warehouse, two unsavory FBI agents impugn his World War II record. Later, Jones asks an old ally, who switched allegiances to the Soviets, how many people lost their lives because of his cavalier and mercenary act.) What purpose do these Bush-era allusions serve? They're like the jokes in animated films aimed squarely at adults, designed to fool us into forgetting that we're watching a children's film.
On the vast continuum of educational films, Indiana Jones and TKOTCS falls well short of those other recent flawed travelogues of American adventurers abroad, Standard Operating Procedure and Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?. I stretch to make a point (or a joke), for I'm holding a fictional yarn up to a pair of documentaries. But it's worth asking what sticks with younger viewers as historical truth. Are there hordes of Americans whose understanding of the Titanic and Pearl Harbor have been definitively fixed by James Cameron and Michael Bay (respectively)? And who am I to point fingers, with a view of the Resistance permanently colored by Casablanca?
There's no reason to fret that audiences will come away from Indiana Jones and TKOTCS convinced of the documented existence of Area 51 and entombed aliens with gigantic magnetic brains. (Apropos our earlier conversation about originality, Koepp doesn't invent a tale so much as cash in on perceptions promulgated with great delight and success by The X-Files.) But one wonders if younger moviegoers will likewise ascribe the Cold War, and the civilization of the Mayans, to the imagination of a screenwriter.
No doubt columnists and critics debated this issue in the pages of newspapers a century ago, when the masses embraced newfangled motion pictures. We are so much more sophisticated and media-savvy today, allegedly, and it would be nice to see commercial moviemakers relating to their audience on a higher level.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now playing.