National Treasure
directed by Jon Turteltaub
(Walt Disney, 2003)

Who says history is always boring? Granted, the story of this National Treasure is pure fiction, but its roots are grounded in the history of American Independence, especially the Declaration of Independence and that wily old codger Ben Franklin.

As the story goes, a group of Crusaders found this vast treasure in the Holy Land and formed the Knights Templar in order to keep it secret and protected; that mission was taken up in turn by the Freemasons. By the start of the Revolutionary War, Freemasons such as George Washington, Franklin and other Founding Fathers hid the treasure so that it could not possibly be discovered by the British. They left behind a number of clues as to its existence and location, but these were all but lost -- the last surviving Founding Father, unable to meet with and reveal the secret to President Andrew Jackson, passed the first clue along to a servant just before his death. That servant's descendants have spent major portions of their lives looking for a treasure that no one else believes exists -- and with no luck whatsoever. Not, that is, until Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) came along and solved the first clue. I guess it's all downhill from here, right? Well, not exactly.

The Declaration of Independence is probably the most heavily protected document in the entire world -- this thing, if I remember correctly, will actually survive a nuclear bomb if it is lowered down into its vault in time. You can't just walk in and ask the nice National Archives folks to please open the case up and let you apply a reagent to it in order to reveal a treasure map on its back. (Gates tries it -- it doesn't work. No one will even believe his warning about his newly acquired archenemy's plans for stealing it.) In order to keep the document out of the wrong hands, he decides he has little choice but to steal it himself. That's when things really start moving along -- and they don't stop there, as each discovery leads to new clues about the treasure. Continuing the quest is hard work, especially when every cop in the country is after you and your enemies want to know what you know and then kill you.

Personally, I would have liked more clues scattered along the way. Gates figures out about the map on the back of the Declaration pretty darned quickly, and the remaining clues (which really are quite ingenious) sometimes get lost in the shuffle of Gates and his partners trying to avoid capture by the feds or their treasure-hunting competitors. I was a little concerned about the way this movie might end -- would they find the treasure or not? It was potentially a lose-lose situation either way, but I have to say National Treasure delivers an ending I can easily live with.

I don't, as a general rule, like Cage very much, but I have to say he seemed to fit himself to the character perfectly and injected plenty of energy into the entire movie. The whole cast was very good. Sean Bean was easy to dislike as Gates' ruthless rival in the search, Harvey Keitel was -- well, he was Harvey Keitel, Justin Bartha was pretty funny as Gates' comic sidekick, and Diane Kruger was certainly an attractive addition as the curator turned ally (even though her loyalties seem to shift rather quickly).

I thought this was an immensely enjoyable film -- a little less than perfect in a couple of places, but well thought out and actually pretty believable. It's a wonder no one thought of this sort of story already. After all, there is plenty of Mason-related speculation about the very design of Washington, D.C. When you get right down to it, there's just nothing like a good conspiracy story. Unless you just don't like being entertained, I don't see how you could not enjoy National Treasure.

by Daniel Jolley
1 July 2006

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