For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Nicolas Cage trades his “serious actor” hat (see Leaving Los Vegas or Adaptation) for that of action hero in this thrilling potboiler. Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) grew up influenced more by his grandfather John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer) than his father Patrick Henry Gates (Jon Voight)—wow, does this family love their American history! Grandfather maintains that there is hidden somewhere in America a vast treasure passed down through the centuries, guarded over first by the Knights Templar, and then by the Masons. After a twenty year futile search, the father has concluded that the treasure is just a legend. Accordingly, when his son persists in searching for clues, the two break off communications with one another.
Ben and his sidekicks Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and Ian Howe (Sean Bean) travel to the Arctic because Ben has deduced that the clue “Charlotte” is the name of a 19th Century ship that was lost in the ice there. Sure enough, in what must rank as the quickest scientific dig in history, Ben locates the ship and finds deep in its hold not the treasure, but an elaborately carved pipe with more clues. Almost before you can say “Abracadabra” (three times), Ben has figured out that their next search must take place in Washington, DC, where the Declaration of Independence is displayed. What Ben has not figured on, however, is the treachery of Ian, who wants the vast treasure for himself. Getting the drop on Ben and Riley, Ian and his associates almost succeed in blowing up our two heroes before they (the villains) set forth for the nation’s capital.
Ben and Riley get there first and, after failing to convince the FBI and another agency that someone is out to steal the Declaration, the two arrive at the office of Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) in the National Archives. At first convinced that their story about a treasure map being on the back of the Declaration of Independence is lunacy, she eventually is won over, after witnessing its “impossible” theft (by Ben and Riley) and being forcibly made an accessory in their flight from the FBI. Enter Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) who heads the task force that dogs the heels of our hardy band. Their pursuit leads to Independence Hall and the Franklin Mint in Philadelphia to old Trinity Church at the start of Manhattan’s Wall Street to North Church in Boston, a veritable What’s What of our national history. Also pursuing the trio are the villains, which doubles the danger and thrills.
As to the history in the film, it’s at about the same level as that in The Da Vinci Code—which is to say, it’s mostly a bunch of hokum based on a minimum of historical fact. Supposedly the treasure is the result of thousands of years of acquisition and plunder, so huge that when it came into the possession of its Christian guardians, it was deemed too large to be entrusted to any one person. And so by some form of logic it was decided that it would be kept secret, and unused. One wonders, for instance, if George Washington and his fellow Masons knew of its existence, why they did not sell off a few items to supplement their cash-starved Revolution.
The film does at least provide some bits of information that the general public might not be aware of—for instance that there were 55 signers of the Declaration, and that the original copy is not in the city of its signing but in the National Archives in Washington. And how many of us who enjoy our history have ever heard of the Silence Dogood letters on display at the Franklin Mint? A series of notes printed in the New England Courant, they were supposedly written by a middle-aged woman named Silence, but in reality by Ben Franklin. In the film these serve as a means of finding the final clues as to where the treasure is located.
With lots of chases and cliff-hanging episodes, as well as considerable humor (the scene of Ben’s trying to smuggle the rolled up Declaration out of the National Archives and being stopped in the Gift Shop and made to pay $35 for it by the clerk because she thinks it is one of the copies sold to tourists is a hoot), director Jon Turteltaub’s film will keep your adrenalin flowing. Just remember to disengage your mind. Ben Gage fortunately is one of those pure-hearted heroes who demonstrate, in the face of great temptation, that his heart is in the right place.
1) Although it could easily be argued that this fluffy action film doesn’t deserve much attention, a leader could use it in conjunction with another, far deeper film—such as the classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre or its modern counterpart, A Simple Plan. Compare the heroes in the different films:” for instance, does National Treasure ever take seriously the seductive power of temptation upon Ben? Another film that seriously probes the power of temptation is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
2) I saw National Treasure on the same day that I viewed Alexander and was struck by the differences in the ways in which the two films present their heroes. You might compare the subtleties of Oliver Stone’s development of Alexander’s character with that of Jon Turteltaub’s of Ben’s.
3) Granted that Ben is not a complex character, nonetheless how does he show that he would understand Jesus’ words? However, do you think the way the scriptwriters situate the three protagonists at the end of the film undermines this teaching a bit?