John McCain, You Are No Indiana Jones

Screening Liberally Big Picture by Justin Krebs

indiana-jones-crystal-skull.jpg An aging man-of-action shows show he can still throw punches with the young guys. A rough-and-tumble cowboy as American as apple pie wins our hearts again. A media favorite has returned.

You'd think that the release of the fourth Indiana Jones Adventure, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, would be music to John McCain's ears. After all, if America can fall in love with one gray-haired hero, why not another?

And sure enough, in the opening scenes, Harrison Ford's rugged archaeologist adventurer, when confronted with a dozen guns trained his way, doesn't blink -- instead he faces down the Communist bad guys with a simple message: "I like Ike."

You can imagine the McCain spin room starting to whir, reaching out for Indiana's coattails.

But I'm sorry to say, Mr. Senator...America knows Henry Jones, Jr. And you, sir, are no Indiana.

This much-anticipated release offers 2 hours of icing for anyone who feasted on the trilogy of the 80s. It's not a film to win over a new generation, or even a stand-alone film in its own right, but a rambunctious romp that makes you laugh and cheer and roll your eyes a little bit.

The team is back together: Spielberg, Lucas & Ford -- and just as Professor Jones has one last adventure in him, so does this triumvirate. They pull out all the old jokes and references you could hope for, replacing Nazis with Communists, as Indy stumbles through a new decade (in an early moment, he even faces down an atomic threat...a far cry from the first films.)

You're in the company of old friends. It's even more implausible (is that possible?) than the original films, as Ford's aging body has become only more indestructible. But they are willing to laugh at themselves -- and their age...and their self-aware cheesiness -- and you love laughing with them. Or at least I did. I was just happy to see them again.

In a way the film is an Indiana Jones-approved spoof of Indiana Jones: louder, goofier, more tongue-in-cheek, and, yes, less sincere. At no point are characters really in danger; even in the context of the film, the characters don't really fear for one another's safety. At no point are we really surprised by their emotional turns because they aren't really emotionally-driven. And we kind of stop worrying about the plot, because really we're there for the ride.

That said, it's a heckuva fun ride. And part of what makes it work is an ingredient that also made the original Star Wars films works, but was absent from the second round of those films: quite simply, Harrison Ford.

He's great. He can still win over men and women alike with the twinkle in his eye. We're happy to have him back (back from his Indy hiatus, as well as from flicks like Firewall).

And that's one reason why John McCain can't see himself in this film: he's no Harrison Ford. McCain, looking tired, making missteps and fouled up by constant gaffes, just looks his age. Indiana Jones is a grayer figure, but just as hale and hearty, as flirtatious and reckless and wisecracking as ever.

Sorry, Senator, but you don't live in the movies.

There's also the political differences. Professor Jones is an archeologist studying and respecting past cultures. John McCain helms a party that has trouble with evolution. Indiana has as much reverence in this film for the stories of Mayan gods as he did in the last film for the mythos of the Grail; McCain can't tell Sunni and Shiite apart. Jones may be reckless at times, but he also makes allies -- from a young greaser, to an old flame -- while McCain follows the Bush tradition of going it alone.

There are few overt political nods in this film but one resonates: when Indiana Jones, under suspicion by the FBI for his friendship with an outed Communist agent, is forced from his professorial post by a timid university Board of Trustees. As much as Indiana punches Communists in the nose, he also is the victim of political persecution and fear-mongering.

Spielberg's politics come out here: a culture of suspicion -- suppression of academia -- authoritarian intervention by government. These are comments on the 1950s in which the film is set, but stand out as warnings today. It's a gentle touch, but it works. (Spielberg is no Commie sympathizer, mind you...an early chase scene has Communist thugs being smacked in the face by "Better Dead Than Red" signs at a student rally. Although, while anti-Communist sentiment is laid on thick, it never has the vigor or reaches the passionate extent of Spielberg's anti-Nazi hatred.)

But the biggest difference between the Professor and the Senator: Indiana Jones is joyous, hopeful. (Some in the audience were even a little disappointed by just how cheerful the film felt.) McCain is a dour, gloom-and-doom, fear-monger.

It's not Indy's age that makes us love him. It's that he elevates our spirits. And if John McCain wants to outrace his years the way Indiana Jones has, he doesn't just need to get more physically fit and verbally savvy...he needs to live in a more optimistic world as well.

Maybe that's what McCain's presumptive rival has picked up on...now if only Senator Obama had a hat and whip.