Director: John Turteltaub
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer
MPAA Rating: (for action violence and some scary images)
Running Time: 2:11
Release Date: 11/19/04
Review by Mark Dujsik
Oh, what a fun life it must have been to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Not only would you have taken part in the creation of the world's longest lasting democracy, but you also would have been able to come up with an elaborate scavenger hunt for future generations to decipher. After all, government building must be some tedious work—a vote here, an amendment there—so why not just use your downtime to take that letter you wrote to King George III citing "repeated injuries and usurpations" and mark a series of numbers that correspond to letters Benjamin Franklin wrote to The New England Courant under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood" in disappearing ink on the back? Did I mention that at the end of the search, one will find the most impressive treasure the world has ever seen, kept hidden from the British by the Freemasons? As utterly silly as it all sounds now, during the duration of National Treasure, it doesn't seem quite so ridiculous. That the movie manages to maintain interest and gain occasional involvement is somewhat of a feat considering, although not enough of a feat for it to succeed.
In 1974 (because two years later is the bicentennial, and that's just too obvious), a young Benjamin Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) is told the most amazing story of the ancient, hidden treasure by his grandfather John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer). He wants to become one of its protectors, although his father Patrick Henry Gates (Jon Voight) isn't too happy about that. Now, Ben is all grown up and played by Nicolas Cage, and he's off in the Arctic Circle, searching for an old, sunken ship with the help of his rich investor Ian Howe (Sean Bean). The ship contains the only clue Gates has to work on to discovering the treasure, and it points to the direction of the Declaration of Independence. Ian wants to steal it; Ben thinks that's unthinkable. Ian goes out on his own with his thugs; Ben takes his assistant Riley (Justin Bartha) to try and stop him. The FBI is no help, but he finds a somewhat more sympathetic ear at the National Archives in the form of Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). After the dead ends, Ben decides the only way to keep the document safe from the likes of Ian is to steal it himself.
The movie has a few neat sequences, including the robbery of the Declaration and the exploration of really old, really deep catacombs underneath Trinity Church. Director John Turteltaub intercuts Ben and Ian's separate schemes for the first one, which conveniently take place at the exact same time. Granted, it's during a fundraiser for the Archives, but one still has to wonder exactly how no one notices Ian's less-than-delicate break-in. The Declaration, of course, isn't the final clue in the complex path to the treasure, and so now everyone's on a tourist run to famous landmarks across the East Coast. Screenwriters Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley (one short of the dreaded foursome) have fun imagining where clues lie and what they mean, and they strike the right tone of disbelieving seriousness to let us in on the hunt, no matter how absurd it sounds on paper. The Dogood letters have something to do with it, but so do the Liberty Bell and its old home atop Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a small clock on the back of a hundred-dollar bill and the time it reads, and a pair of nifty spectacles invented by the actual Ben Franklin.
Far less appealing are the obvious elements of formula in which the screenwriters indulge. Think of the characters and the way they fit into simplistic archetypes: Ben, the obsessive treasure hunter, who seems a bit more than that because he's played by Cage. Abigail is the pretty girl. Riley is the wisecracking sidekick, although he's rarely funny with an endless supply of one-liners that border on grating (the fact that he's only here to provide said one-liners only makes his character more of an annoyance). Ian follows in the long line of villains who are British for no apparent reason except that apparently British guys make better villains. Even Harvey Keitel comes into the proceedings as the FBI agent investigating the robbery at the Archives, but aside from seeing Keitel enter, there's nothing beyond his character than plot necessity. The movie attempts to give us something deeper in the form of the relationship between Ben and his father, but it's so underdeveloped that the false climax highlighting their reconciliation comes across without a hint of resonance.There's also an odd feeling of patriotism that simply interrupts the action, and it's no exaggeration to say that characters will randomly start a brief monologue about some aspect of the Founding Fathers' vision of America. Despite these moments, National Treasure doesn't aim for any higher aspirations, and that's a good thing. If only it managed to avoid the pitfalls of its lesser ambitions, it might have been more worthwhile.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.