National Treasure (2004)

Dir. Jon Turteltaub. Starring Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger

Could anyone else besides Nicolas Cage have pulled this kind of movie off? There’s no one who I think we, as a society, expect this kind of tightrope walking from. This guy has an Oscar, which I forget about all the time, in much the same way I have generally forgotten 1995 existed. He played in two completely different roles in the same year in Raising Arizona and Moonstruck, and played them well! Also, here’s a Nicolas Cage story from my college years, in which a friend and I spent literal months trying not to break out laughing every time we tried to recreate a line of dialogue he speaks in the Season of the Witch trailer: “If she is not what you say, she will not be yours to burn.” He made a movie called Bangkok Dangerous, which for all I know is the greatest movie ever made, but it’s called Bangkok Dangerous.

Granted, I don’t think the full Cage crazies really came into the mainstream until The Wicker Man, which came out after National Treasure. There’s an ex post facto reading of Cage in National Treasure which simply feels right, perhaps because the lunacy of National Treasure is a canary in the coal mine. The sheen of respectability is on National Treasure, with its multiple Oscar winners and clean action setpieces and its callbacks to revolutionary America, but let’s face it, the premise of this movie is so cracked that if it came out ten years later there’d be a QAnon-style conspiracy fanbase around it trying to scratch up clues. Cage’s star image, the man who is obviously talented and totally watchable and also seems to be a little nuts, fits in perfectly with the story of a buried treasure in New York City, hidden by the Masonically inclined Founding Fathers and inherited from the Knights Templar. Indeed, Ben Gates is not dissimilar to all that. A scholar, a veteran, a diver, and enough of an obsessed weirdo to think to himself, “The only way to save the Declaration of Independence from thieves is to steal it before the thieves can get to it.” No, National Treasure is not a good movie, though if they’d set it in largely in Boston instead of D.C., Philadelphia, and New York, we’d already have a Rewatchables episode of it. But yes: Nicolas Cage is the only person standing between National Treasure and a bad time. Thank goodness he’s there to give us some absurd fun, because otherwise this would truly be a skin-crawlin’ bad time. He works his way through any number of dumb lines of exposition in that low, sort of mumbly tone he’s got, but he’s also a credible physical actor. Watching him bust out of a janitor’s uniform to reveal the tuxedo beneath is a good bit, as is watching him get caught appearing to shoplift the Declaration of Independence. Nicolas Cage’s thinking face, given the way his face is shaped, is practically an action in itself.

In 2004, we were deep in the throes of The Da Vinci Code. Assuming people my age will get to have grandchildren, I don’t quite know how we’ll explain the novel, and I absolutely don’t know how we’ll explain how angry people got about it. (I can hear it now: “People got that mad about a book? Without Twitter?”) In 2004, we were also still pretty tied up with performative 9/11 grief tinged with the trappings of Americana; “God Bless the U.S.A.” got its second life around this time. Even if people had been working on the ideas behind the picture for years, I suppose this movie is what we deserved in 2004, a plot devised with feverish cliffhangers at chapter breaks and which, after a historian and his henchmen blow up what would have been an absolutely priceless historical find in the Arctic, drives us up the Eastern seaboard in search of more and more clues. National Treasure does, I think, take some lessons from Da Vinci Code, though, that make it a significantly smoother ride. For one, the idea of the Founding Fathers burying treasure in cavernous rooms below Manhattan is too kid-friendly and silly and non-threatening to make anyone upset; we’re far short of “Jesus had kids and this disproves Christianity and also Eyes Wide Shut is involved, somehow.” For another, Robert Langdon is sort of a non-entity; never in the history of literature has tweed done so much work in characterization. But Ben Gates—again, with that strange low-key manic energy that Nic Cage brings to his roles—at least has a little fire in the belly. It’s not really about the treasure for Ben; he’s a historian at heart (though, again, that pyrotechnic beginning means he’s not quite the “It belongs in a museum!” type), a patriot in bland but at least recognizable ways, and he has a chip on his shoulder. His family is persona non grata with the U.S. government because of their conspiracy-mongering history. Radicalized at a young age by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer, whose impassioned monologue about Charles Carroll of Carrollton is probably the best acting in the entire movie), Ben’s belief in a treasure stored up in heaven by the Founders has survived pubescence, adulthood, and, y’know, a complete absence of evidence. Ben’s father, Patrick (Jon Voight), gave up on the search after deciding that the whole thing is a wild goose choose, which, given the sheer number of clues people have presumably been working through since the 1820s or whatever, seems entirely plausible. What makes Ben a recognizable character is his belief, which is not merely the belief of the faithful but the typically evangelical attitude that one must push against something in order to believe it. Even if this isn’t Citizen Kane, at least there’s more to Ben than tweed. (Ben shops at Urban Outfitters, apparently. There’s like a whole scene where he tries on clothes mid-conversation, which is not unprecedented or anything, but like, there is so much attention giving to him putting clothes on? Honestly this is one of the weirdest things about the whole movie.)

The clues themselves aren’t all that great? First off, they’re written in hokey scavenger hunt style, which I guess makes them recognizable as clues, and which also makes a certain amount of sense, too. If the cracks in our constitutional system are showing up quite rapidly these days, it’s easier to believe the geniuses who wrote it up were incredible cornballs than if those clues were actually difficult ciphers. The clues either come much too quickly, as they do for Ben while he’s inside the Charlotte, or they seem almost ludicrously simple as long as you have even limited knowledge of this Americana and access to…Yahoo, because it’s 2004. Ben is a committed history buff, and along the way they pick up a government researcher, Abigail Chase (Kruger), whose initial presence this far down in the review should tell you all you need to know about how much she genuinely matters to the picture. Yet Ian (Sean Bean), who left Ben for dead on the Charlotte, makes the gamble that he can solve whatever clues are left by himself and with access to Yahoo. Given how often he and his team nip Ben’s heels, the movie certainly seems to believe he’s right. It may be the only way to maintain any serious kind of dramatic tension—or, let’s face it, force a couple of henchmen to face honky Xibalba when everyone’s taking a centuries-old elevator to the treasure—but I can’t help but feel it cheapens the value of the historical knowledge that Ben and Abigail have. Maybe I’m being an elitist, though. After all, one of the movie’s more affable scenes features Riley (Bartha), the Ron of this particular group, trying to lord over his better-educated friends that he knows something they don’t know. It doesn’t all go well for him, as the pair know all too well whose idea it was in the first place, but just for a minute the dingus had his time in the afternoon sun.

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