What do you get when you cross Indiana Jones with Rodney Dangerfield? A treasure-hunter who gets no respect. In National Treasure that individual has a name: Benjamin Franklin Gates. For generations his family has searched in vain for a vast fortune believed to have been smuggled out of Europe and hidden in the colonies by our Founding Fathers. One of Ben’s ancestors received a cryptic message that has kept the Gateses obsessed for centuries, though all they’ve earned for their faith and perseverance is a reputation as crackpots. After 20 “wasted years” Ben’s father is fed up with the legend. But Ben can’t shake his grandfather’s stories and refuses to call off the search.
Funded by the wealthy, crafty Ian Howe (a greedy man of questionable loyalties) and aided by a computer-savvy sidekick named Riley, Ben uncovers a pivotal clue only to have the impatient Ian turn on him. He and Riley narrowly escape with their lives.
Then they hatch a scheme to thwart Ian’s selfish pursuit of the treasure, one that begins with protecting the Declaration of Independence—by stealing it. Unwittingly swept up in the chaos is Abigail, a lovely National Archives conservator. National Treasure is an entertaining action/mystery that baits the audience clue by clue and chase by chase, and may even inspire young fans to pay more attention in history class.
Young Ben shares a sweet friendship with his grandfather that proceeds to shape his life’s pursuits. Like anyone with deep faith in something unseen, Ben patiently endures persecution for what he believes to be true. Despite people calling him foolish and crazy, Ben and his ancestors (Dad excluded) have maintained an undying optimism and held fast to their convictions.
Quoting from the Declaration of Independence, Ben points out that those with the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action in order to right a wrong. The Declaration is revered as a symbol of freedom to be protected at all costs. Ben’s and Ian’s simultaneous attempts to steal that document reveal a sharp contrast in their methods and character; Ben shows far more respect for property and human safety than does his rival. And while Ian is in it for personal riches, Ben simply wants to share whatever he finds with the world’s museums. The hero insists on pressing forward in the wake of disappointments. A father and son team up and overcome their differences.
Foundational to the back-story of this treasure-hunting adventure is The Knights Templar (further popularized in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code), a group that inspired the influential fraternity known as Freemasonry. Much is made of the fact that America’s Founding Fathers were Freemasons, and the story supposes that they hid a vast fortune in a subterranean vault so that it wouldn’t corrupt their new nation or its leaders. Freemasonry is portrayed as a noble sect full of mystery and intrigue. Most modern members claim that the organization is not a “faith” in itself, but merely a club committed to good works and a moral code that make it a natural complement to Christianity. Others disagree on that last note, pointing to blood oaths, secret rituals, curses, and writings by early leaders that contain occult philosophy and unsound doctrine.
Riley worries that a broken shoelace is a “bad omen.”
When Ben shows up at his father’s door accompanied by a woman and claiming to be in trouble, Dad asks if she’s pregnant. In regard to that remark, Ben later admits to Abigail, “My father thinks I’ve been a little too cavalier in my personal life.” Ben and Abigail kiss. Abigail wears an evening gown that reveals cleavage (as she leans over a table in one scene, the camera practically shoots down her dress).
A rickety catwalk gives way, causing a man to fall into a seemingly bottomless abyss. Ian and his men unleash frequent flurries of gunfire and threaten people’s lives, but there are no casualties. A lit flare ignites a man’s sleeve. Goons temporarily disable a guard by shooting him with a taser. Ben draws blood by pricking his thumb with a knife, and later knocks a pursuer out cold. And what would a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie be without wild chases, explosions and cars bashing through barriers?
One exclamation of “h—.” Ian uses the English profanity “bloody.” There are just over a half-dozen interjections of “my god,” “oh my lord,” “for god’s sake,” etc.
Guests at formal gatherings sip champagne.
Some viewers may cringe at human remains found aboard a frozen-over ship. Although Ben has pure motives, he also has a severe case of situation ethics that causes him to lie, evade authorities and steal the Declaration of Independence for the greater good. He even rationalizes his actions by noting that the Founding Fathers committed high treason in the name of freedom (“Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right”). Most families won’t consider this squishy morality a reason to avoid the film, but it’s definitely worth discussing afterwards.
National Treasure is an enjoyable enough ride if you don’t mind being strung along indefinitely by a series of clues that may or may not go anywhere. Fans of smartly layered mysteries that slip viewers subtle hints, rewarding them in the end for their astuteness, will be frustrated. Hey, this ain’t Hercule Poirot. Each revelation here simply takes us to another clue. We’re not challenged to solve a puzzle, but just hang with the heroes while they do. Fortunately, the cat-and-mouse game between Nicolas Cage and Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) creates enough tension to bridge the ho-hum epiphanies.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this movie is what it could mean for the course of movies in general. With Pixar starting to clean out its desk and Disney’s in-house animation team unlikely to fill the position, the Walt Disney Co. realizes it can’t afford to conduct business as usual and retain its crown as the undisputed champion of family entertainment. (You can only strip mine existing properties for so long.) What Disney hopes to do with films like National Treasure is reposition its big-budget, live-action fare as more accessible to families. They saw it work when they trimmed R-rated language out of Remember the Titans. Now its possible more titles that otherwise might’ve earned a PG-13 or R will have the gratuitous content excised so that teens and adults can enjoy a top-drawer drama, comedy or action movie without unpleasant surprises. It also means live-action PGs may no longer be limited to inane fodder that writes off anyone capable of long division.
Nina Jacobson, president of Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, told The New York Times, “It’s all about moving from the conventional definition of a family film to the more sophisticated idea of a general audience film that is appropriate for a family audience.”
In other words, Disney’s feeling nostalgic for the way Hollywood used to make movies way, way, waaaay back in the old days … of Star Wars and E.T. Great idea! And other studios admit they’re already copying it. Of course, the only way that strategy will continue to make sense for executives is if those movies make big bucks. So I’m really rooting for Cage’s latest action flick. If it manages to revolutionize Hollywood’s approach to live-action family films, it truly would be a national treasure.