In these days of increased security, hyper-patriotism and paranoia about the state of the union, it's only normal that we seek release in entertainment that lets us vicariously process our anxieties. Well, God bless America, Disney and mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer: National Treasure is a film that's unafraid to treat the foundation of Our Great Nation -- the Declaration of Independence -- as a ludicrous plot device.
Jon Turteltaub opens his film in the 1970s as Grandpa Gates (Christopher Plummer) pages through the family scrapbook and explains to his young grandson Ben how the Gates men have been the keepers of a single clue that reputedly leads to an unimaginable treasure, a treasure so immense that it must be hidden to protect the world against it. (Interesting angle never pursued: Does a treasure too huge to be had count as a treasure at all?) Grandpa rattles off some mumbo-jumbo conspiracy narrative about the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, signatories to the Declaration of Independence, and so on. Suffice to say, the Gates men got treasure fever.
Fast-forward to today, with Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) all grown up and inexplicably dashing across the Arctic Circle on a giant snow-tractor thingie with his treasure-hunting crew. In the great expanse of whiteness, Gates uncovers a valuable clue. Actually, he discovers several clues and solves a riddle -- all in about four unintentionally funny minutes of detection. The map to the treasure is on the Declaration of Independence! Instantly, Gates' funder, oily Brit Ian Howe (Sean Bean), grabs everything and takes off.
So the chase is on, as both men and their respective henchmen set out to nab the Declaration, a document that proves surprisingly simple to steal while tout le Beltway is distracted by a cocktail party. Gates eventually enlists the assistance of Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who is surely the hottest wonk ever to work at the National Archives, and who falls easily for Gates' self-serving logic that the only way to save the Declaration is to steal it.
One clue leads to another, and I won't spoil that fun (hint: study the back of the dollar bill with your all-seeing eye) as the film follows our merry bands -- Gates and crew, Howe's gang of foreigners, and the FBI, helmed by a lackluster Harvey Keitel -- through a whirlwind tour of Colonial America's great landmarks. In this respect, National Treasure is handsomely shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who makes able use of Washington, D.C.'s fine marble monuments.
Frankly, after the interminable barrage of serious political hand-wringing that was Campaign 2004, I was looking forward to a film that seemed to promise to hell with it all, democracy be damned, let's blow shit up and fly the Declaration as our flag. Unfortunately, this film harbors no such anarchic exuberance; it's a run-of-the-mill big-budget actioner, the sort of super-shiny crap imbued with phony purpose that we expect from Chez Bruckheimer.
National Treasure mixes up a been-there, seen-that stew of Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, half-recalled high school American history classes and The DaVinci Code. There's the reluctant hero driven by noble inner desire that nobody else understands; a severely compressed timeline; an idiotic pounding score; the chick scientist (smart, beautiful and these days, patriotic) and the comic-relief sidekick. (Curiously absent: the token minority character.)
The film misses opportunities to be a better piece of shlock. The puzzle plot is wildly outrageous and fun, yet the movie lacks suspense and any sense of peril. In one super-silly scene, Cage actually opts to save the document rather than the love interest. Puh-leez. As anybody knows from watching earnest parishioners commenting to the media after their church goes up in flames: It's not the object, it's the spirit. Would the entire United States tumble into instant chaos if one crusty old bit of paper got lost? Particularly when -- as the film takes pains to show us -- so many very reasonable facsimiles are available at the National Archives gift shop for $35?
The film's title -- and to some degree, its raison d'etre -- is a misnomer of the very worse sort. While this treasure may have been hidden in the U.S., it is in fact the plunder of ancient lands including Greece, Egypt and Babylonia. Neither Gates, the villains, assorted Freemasons or any part of the United States government holds any legitimate claim. But, details, details. Finders keepers.
Cage, as the fumbling history-head Gates, proves a dull action figure: He never brings to life what should be Gates' slightly scary mania and do-anything drive. And the story pairs him with an equally yawn-inducing villain -- a Richard Branson clone driven by greed yet still protective of the Declaration. (Why not dare to put Islamic terrorists on the chase? After all, they presumably hate our freedom: They'd have no respect for the Declaration and arguably they might even have claim to some of these ancient treasures.)
What should have been a satisfying romp, enlivened by decent action sequences and uplifted with trivia about the Founding Fathers, loses momentum by mid-point. It's a tale bereft of dastardly deeds -- will no one be a martyr for democracy? -- and lacks tension. Long before the final clue is discovered, National Treasure mostly resembles TV's bloodless The Amazing Race -- the American History Edition.
Starts Fri., Nov. 19.