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Comment: Anyone crazy enough to enjoy review this isn’t gonna become a subscriber.
Dusty: We don’t need someone crazy. But one step short of crazy, what do you get?
Dusty: Someone looking for follow-backs.
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean
Release Date: November 19, 2004 (United States)
Run time: 2 hour, 12 minutes
Benjamin Franklin Gates is an American historian, cryptographer, and treasure hunter. When Ben was young, his grandfather John told him that, in 1832, Charles Carroll passed on a secret to their ancestor of a fabled treasure hidden in America by the Knights Templar, Founding Fathers, and Freemasons. Carroll’s secret was a clue leading to the treasure: the phrase “the secret lies with Charlotte”. While Ben is convinced by the story, his skeptical father, Patrick, dismisses it as nonsense.
Thirty years later, Ben and his friend, computer expert Riley Poole, head an expedition financed by wealthy Ian Howe to find the Charlotte, revealed to be a ship lost in the Arctic. Within the ship, they find a meerschaum pipe, whose engravings reveal the next clue is on the Declaration of Independence. When Ian reveals himself to be a crime boss and suggests stealing the Declaration, a fight ensues, and the group splits. Ben and Riley report Ian’s plan to the FBI and Abigail Chase of the National Archives, but no one believes them. Ben decides to protect the Declaration by removing it from the Archives’ preservation room during a gala event. Obtaining Abigail’s fingerprints, he successfully obtains the Declaration, only to be spotted by Ian’s group just as they break in to steal it. Ben tries to leave via the gift shop but has to pay for the Declaration when the cashier mistakes it for a souvenir copy. Suspecting something amiss, Abigail confronts Ben and takes back the document. Ian promptly kidnaps her, but Ben and Riley rescue Abigail, tricking Ian by leaving behind a souvenir copy of the Declaration. FBI Agent Sadusky begins tracking Ben down.
Going to Patrick’s house, the trio studies the Declaration and discovers an Ottendorf cipher written in invisible ink. The message refers to Benjamin Franklin‘s Silence Dogood letters. Patrick formerly owned them, but donated them to the Franklin Institute. Paying a schoolboy to view the letters and decipher the code for them, Ben, Riley, and Abigail discover a message pointing to the bell tower of Independence Hall. Pursued by Ian, they find a brick containing a pair of spectacles with multiple colored lenses, which, when used to read the back of the Declaration, reveal a clue pointing to Trinity Church. Ian’s associates chase the trio through Philadelphia until the FBI arrests Ben. Abigail and Riley lose the Declaration to Ian, but Abigail convinces Ian to help them rescue Ben in exchange for the next clue. Ian agrees, arranging a meeting at the USS Intrepid, where they help Ben evade the FBI.
Ian returns the Declaration and asks for the next clue, but when Ben remains coy, Ian reveals he has taken Patrick hostage. They travel to the Trinity Church, where they find an underground passage that appears to lead to a dead end, lit by a lone lantern. Patrick claims it is a reference to the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, pointing Ian to the Old North Church in Boston. Ian traps Ben, Abigail, Riley, and Patrick in the chamber, heading for Boston, which was Patrick’s intent as the clue was fictitious and he knew that Ian would betray them. Ben then finds a notch the meerschaum pipe fits into, opening a large chamber containing the treasure, with a staircase to the surface. Ben contacts Sadusky, who is actually a Freemason, and surrenders the Declaration and the treasure’s location in exchange for letting Abigail go free, giving the Gates family and Riley credit for the discovery, and no prison sentence. On a tip from Ben, the FBI arrests Ian for kidnapping and other crimes.
Later, Ben and Abigail have started a relationship, while Riley is somewhat upset that Ben turned down the 10% finder’s fee for the treasure so the entire collection could go to museums. But the 1% he did accept has still netted them all significant wealth.
I love National Treasure. I love it. It’s like this movie was made with, specifically, me in mind. Nicolas Cage? Check. Ancient lost treasure? Check. Clues and a treasure map? Check. A story about betrayal? Check. A storytelling focused on repairing a father-son dynamic? Check. A vindicated conspiracy theorist? Check. A ton of action scenes? Check. Absurd levels of Founding Fathers patriotism? Check. A family-friendly rendering of this story? Check.
The basic premise driving the plot is that Nicolas Cage’s Ben Gates discovers that there is an actual treasure map, written in invisible ink, on the back of the Declaration of Independence. His friend Ian, upon learning this, betrays him, leaves him for dead, and makes plans to steal the Declaration to capture the vast treasure for himself. The threat that Ian might succeed, given his background and nearly limitless resources, is so high that after nobody in the Federal government takes Ben’s warnings seriously, he decides that the only way to protect the Declaration is to steal it first. That decision probably gave us the greatest line of dialogue in film history.
From here forward, the rest of the movie is something of a cloak and dagger chess match between Ben, Ian, and the FBI, with Ben and his team ultimately winning and discovering an unfathomably large treasure of ancient relics.
The story is going to conjure comparisons with Indiana Jones, but I think tonally it shares much more with Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy in that it does not take itself quite so seriously. National Treasure is fun. Its goal, among other things, is to make history fun. It succeeds. If your premise is somewhat absurd, as the idea of stealing the Declaration of Independence would surely be viewed by audiences, then the best and only way to sell that is to have fun with it.
I continue to use the word “absurd” regarding the underlying plot, but is the idea that the Founders of the United States might have used cyphers and secret maps to hide a vast treasure actually absurd? Not entirely. One of the most popular shows on the History Channel is “The Curse of Oak Island,” which is a treasure hunt show set in Nova Scotia, Canada. It covers many of the same ideas as are covered by the film – ranging from buried clues, cyphers, secret maps, and involvement by the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and other shadowy groups from history. The search for the Oak Island treasure has been on-going for nearly as long as the United States has been in existence. Even U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt – a Freemason – went treasure hunting on Oak Island in his younger years. The idea that this type of secret might have existed is just realistic enough that a fantastical film, based on this premise, can be bought by audiences.
In additional to Nicolas Cage doing excellent Nicolas Cage things, the other performances in this film were all terrific. Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha were both great in their supporting roles. I really liked Jon Voight as Ben Gates’ skeptical father. He had chased the treasure, and been let down by it, only to be proven wrong by his own son, to his overwhelming pride and joy. Sean Bean was also terrific as Ian. He was sufficiently menacing, but not so much so that it veered the film outside of PG territory. In a surprise turn, he does not die.
Personally, my favorite aspect of the film is that it asks its audience a question. What would you be willing to face to do what you know to be right.
Ben Gates: A toast? Yeah. To high treason. That’s what these men were committing when they signed the Declaration. Had we lost the war, they would have been hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and-Oh! Oh, my personal favorite-and had their entrails cut out and *burned*!
Ben Gates: So… Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right…what they knew was right.
If your country needed it – even if your country did not know that it needed it – would you be willing to steal a document like the Declaration of Independence? [Answer that one in your head, for obvious reasons.]
What did you think about National Treasure?