November 19, 2004,
Oscar season must be closing in on us again. You can tell by all the earnest, grown-up themes like adultery (Closer, Kinsey), pedophilia (Birth, Kinsey), bisexuality (Alexander, Kinsey), and deceit (The Motorcycle Diaries, Kinsey) floating on the air. If things keep up like this, it will be a very discontenting winter at the Cineplex, for sure.
So perhaps it was in anticipation of all the Sturm und Drang that will undoubtedly make up most of my film-going experiences until February that I was of a mind to take it easy on a silly, implausible, but good-natured adventure that can boast the entire family as its target audience. Because King-of-the-Box-Office Jerry Bruckheimer's latest pitch for gold is nothing if not silly and good-natured.
Imagine the Founding Fathers as heirs to untold riches pilfered from Egypt by those wily Knights Templar. Imagine Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and other famous Freemasons devising a convoluted series of clues designed to test not only a treasure-hunter's mettle, but his love of country as well. Imagine hiding one of those clues on the back of our most august historical document, the Declaration of Independence. And imagine that one family of men alone has guarded the secret and chased the fortune for more than five generations.
Can you imagine all that without rolling your eyes or breaking into a squint and a sneer? Then you may actually enjoy National Treasure, despite some glaring deficiencies.
The search for Templar gold starts on a colonial ship lying just beneath the barest dusting of snow in the expansive Arctic wilderness. Once the treasure-hunting team realizes where that clue is directing them, the hunters split into two groups (the good guys and the bad guys, natch): one made up of American-history buff Ben Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) and his smart-mouthed technophile sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha); the other of an international financier (Sean Bean) and his gang of professional thieves.
From there the race is on to see which team will get to the Declaration first: the one that reveres its author and the government for which it stands, or the one that would just as soon use it for cage lining once it has copied the map off the back. Following the trail of clues to the Library of Congress, the Liberty Bell, and even to Wall Street, the plot hits just about every major American landmark except the Hollywood sign itself (and that, no doubt, ended up on the cutting room floor to keep the film to a reasonable two-hour-and-10-minute length).
Obviously, even within this brief description, certain problems present themselves. For example, why would an already wealthy antagonist risk bringing the entire American government down on his head? And why can't Cage & Co. come up with a better plan to protect the Declaration than to steal it before the bad guys do? And how on earth could that boat sit there on top of the ice for more than two hundred years without sinking, or without anyone noticing that it was there? But these disbeliefs can be reasonably suspended for the sake of fun.
What is not so easily brushed aside is Nicolas Cage, who can't seem to decide whether he's playing a Fox Mulder or an Indiana Jones. Like Jones, he's a scholar with a taste for adventure, and like Mulder he's a true believer whose colleagues have dubbed him a quack. However, unlike the two men who brought those adventurers to life, Cage displays no sense of subtlety or irony. When Cage is good, it's because he plays bigger than real life (as in Moonstruck and Adaptation), and when Cage is bad, it's because he plays bigger than real life (as in Con Air and City of Angels). Here, unfortunately, it's pretty bad: When Cage is not being wooden, he's awkwardly wooing a similarly discomfited Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), the National Archives curator he's kidnapped for her own good.
But even more distracting to our post-9/11 sensibilities is the ease with which all these men, good and bad, break into our most protected buildings. I suppose it's somewhat amusing that they're all crawling through vents and hacking into computers to steal a treasure map, but it's not so funny contemplating who else might be attempting the very same feat and for what purpose. And it's even less funny when a bumbling FBI is unable to keep up with any of them.
Still, the film's infectious enthusiasm for American history never mind that it's an incredibly fanciful version of that history is a welcome respite from the hyper-self-conscious civic pride Hollywood usually displays (when it bothers to display any patriotism at all, that is). Not a single backhanded remark is leveled at any of our illustrious forbears, and even the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson gets away with only admiration and profound reverence.
Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.