By Leander Harding
I heartily recommend the latest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. It is not Shakespeare, but it is exactly what it advertises itself to be, which is a good story told well with superb cinematic craft, featuring characters that we have come to know and love. The movie does have shooting and violence, but nothing sensational. It has no nudity and no explicit sex scenes. It is that rare thing, a family film.
I was prepared for Harrison Ford to have poignantly passed the point when he should have retired. Yet, while Ford plays an old and grizzled Jones who is not aging particularly well, the disabilities of age are not evident in the actor who plays the part. Ford’s performance is vigorous and energetic, and he still moves with physical grace.
The script provides us with the moments we expect and want from the franchise, including a standard vocabulary of facial expressions and hilarious and hard-bitten one-liners. We love the battle between the imperfect but deep-down decent hero and the absolutely evil Nazi villain. There are a couple of moments in the film when the Jones character delves into the more tender recesses of the human heart, including inconsolable grief and family brokenness, and Ford comes through with pitch-perfect performances. One is reminded that the man might actually be accomplished at his profession.
I will reveal as little of the plot as possible in this review, while suggesting some things to look for that should cheer the Christian heart.
Spielberg has found a way of talking about right and wrong, good and evil, friendship and betrayal, courage, sacrifice, and genuine heroism, when the brightest and best despise such references. By sending up the values of the World War II generation, he sends them across and makes it possible for us to have a vacation from contemporary cynicism and nihilism and to wonder at the verities that sustained a previous generation and were reinforced in the local movie house on a Saturday afternoon.
Consider that in a time when there is a popular war against history and a campaign to remove cultural artifacts, Indiana Jones is in the profession of finding and saving such things. Indiana Jones is a professor of the humanities. He knows about treasures that are beyond the ken of bureaucratic modern man because he can read ancient languages and he knows the ancient stories. Because he knows these things, his life opens to adventures that are closed to others. It turns out over and over again in these stories that such knowledge is crucial to the defeat of evil and the salvation of the world. It is not the physicist who saves the day but the professor of antiquities.
Spielberg’s movies are haunted by the Bible. Millions of people have a reasonably accurate idea of what the ark of the covenant looked like because of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sacred relics are forgotten, misunderstood, and not to be trifled with. They are worthy of study, and those who make the effort of understanding are likely to be alive at the end of the film.
The Dial of Destiny opens with Jones searching a Nazi hoard for the lance of Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Christ on the cross. It is the closing days of World War II, and Hitler’s monument men are hoping to bring him a relic with a great and mysterious power that will save the Reich. The struggle with the Nazis has all the amazing stunts and in-the-nick-of-time survival that can be wished, but the lance turns out to be a fake.
Instead, the German rocket physicist who has been detailed to unlock the secrets of the lance discovers the ancient artifact that becomes the holy grail of this quest. It is the Dial of Destiny, a machine built by Archimedes that can find fissures in time. The movie turns away from the search for an artifact of ancient religion to an artifact of ancient science, but leaves us wondering about the story of the real lance.
Just before the movie turns to the story of the Dial, there is an exchange between the German physicist and the archeological sidekick of Jones, who is an expert on the lance, about the power of the relic. The exchange is brilliantly played, and the actor playing the Oxford professor of archeology says in a kind of disbelief at the opacity of the physicist, “the lance has no power.” The subtext is a kind of pitying wonderment at the inability of the physicist to perceive anything but physical power.
The movie then turns to the quest for one of the secrets of ancient science. If the secret falls into the wrong hands, what then? Can anyone be trusted with that kind of power?
As this story develops in entirely predictable and satisfying ways, Spielberg weaves in themes that are there in all his movies: the absent father, the broken family, and the longing for the divorced parents to be reunited. It amazes me that Spielberg gets a pass for his realistic depiction of this dark side of the affluent society.
His depiction of the hunger for the father is particularly poignant, and I think is part of the popularity of his movies. It strikes a deep chord with that very large number of his fans who are grown children of fathers who disappeared into their work. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the costar of this film, plays Indie’s goddaughter. There is a scene in which she talks about her obsessed and absent father and confronts Jones for his failures as an “anointed” godfather after her father died. “Anointed” means sacred. Here is a popular film talking about fatherhood as a sacred task and the deep disappointment and hurt that follows from failing to undertake that task. How did this get past the self-appointed censors?
There is another very affecting moment in the film when Jones wants to disappear into the past and his goddaughter insists that he return with her to the present, where he is still needed and wanted. This insistence by a member of the present generation that an elder put up the effort to be there for her is another surprising affirmation of family and intergenerational interdependence.
Mothers and fathers are being honored and families are being put back together in this film. Look for it in the finale. Love and hope from Hollywood. Prayer is being answered. I wonder if the screenwriters knew any George Herbert. In his poem “Prayer 1,” prayer is, among other things, “Christ-side-piercing spear.”