Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply underappreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
The era of the aughts in the United States of America will be remembered for many things: the World Wide Web, Sketchers, cargo pants, Britney Spears, and much, much more. But it should also be remembered for the all-too-brief reign of Nicolas Cage, Action Hero.
Like the Kardashian family, Cage is mostly famous for being famous. Sure, everyone knows that he’s an actor, but his career has essentially been distilled to a series of internet memes; in other words, Nicolas Cage is the joke and the punchline. Fortunately, Cage has also earned critical acclaim for starring in films like the Charlie Kaufman-penned Adaptation, and he has taken his place alongside the great American action stars of our time for his turn in the spirited, intrepid 2004 film National Treasure.
Directed by Jon Turteltaub and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, National Treasure is – forgive me – truly a national treasure. It feels fitting to rewatch the movie around the Thanksgiving holiday – National Treasure offers a family-friendly adventure that fixates on the elements of American history that can still bring us pride, even in these fractured times.
The film opens in the year 1974, with young Benjamin Gates nosing around his family’s attic. His grandfather (played by Christopher Plummer in a delightful cameo) catches him, but instead of punishing Ben, he decides that he’s finally old enough to hear about the family history. Grandpa weaves a wondrous tale of the Founding Fathers, the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, and a secret note that leads to, of course, buried treasure. Young Ben is rapturous. But his father Patrick, played by Jon Voight in a wig (oh 2004, a quaint era before the spread of CGI de-aging!) scoffs at the pair of them, grumbling about the squandering of the family fortune and good name.
Decades later, Ben (now Nicolas Cage) has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, and we find him plowing through the arctic circle with Riley, his deadpan, wisecracking sidekick (Justin Bartha) and his partner Ian (a menacingly European Sean Bean). They find a shipwreck buried under the snow, and within that, a clue that points to a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Ben’s vindication dissolves into defeat, but Ian is not so easily turned off. In the most diplomatic pitch for a criminal enterprise I’ve ever heard, Ian tells Ben that he has experience running operations of “questionable legality.” Ben is thunderstruck. “Ian, I’m not going to let you steal the Declaration of Independence!”
Cut to: Ian double-crossing Ben, Ben and Riley trying and failing to convince every major American security establishment that the Declaration is in danger, and Ben’s seemingly inevitable conclusion: to protect the Declaration of Independence from Ian’s nefarious plans, Ben decides he’s going to have to steal the document himself.
As movie logic goes, it works just fine, since it instantly propels the plot into the genre of pulse-pounding crime heist. What follows is a fun, Mission Impossible-esque montage detailing Riley’s “man in the chair,” mechanical preparations and Ben’s more old-fashioned, scheming subterfuge, intercut with the the thrilling heist itself. And this is only the first act – the pilfering of our nation’s priceless, foundational document serves as a catalyst for the remainder of the film, which comes across as part action-adventure thriller, part buddy-cop comedy, and part historical treasure hunt. Through it all, National Treasure hovers right at the edge of humor and satire – the film certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also avoids the sometimes cloyingly quippy humor we’ve come to rely on for comedy nowadays.
In National Treasure, the history nerds are the real heroes. As Ben and Riley are joined by National Archives expert Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), the trio has to think fast to outsmart Ian and his gang and stay two steps ahead. Cage plays Ben as a more bookish Indiana Jones mixed with a less idolized Robert Langdon, and the result is a knockoff that somehow feels refreshing; unlike these other two characters, Ben is an underdog, and that makes rooting for him all the more gratifying. And though the film obviously pairs Ben with the the only other female character in sight – reluctant accomplice turned love interest, Dr. Chase – the more effective emotional drama comes from the reconciliation between Ben and his father, Patrick, who inevitably gets mixed up in the whole affair when Ben and his cohorts have nowhere else to turn.
Spending time with these characters is an immensely enjoyable experience, especially when Harvey Keitel shows up as a bemused FBI agent. But it’s even more fun spending time with our nation’s most prominent historical monuments; like a Disneyland tour of United States history, the film’s central treasure hunt leads our heroes to the imposing Lincoln Memorial, the vast and storied Library of Congress, the home of the resilient Liberty Bell, the catacombs beneath New York’s Trinity Church, and more. Watching this film, you can feel adventurous and historically savvy.
Meanwhile, National Treasure brings up some uncomfortable truths about the founding of the United States of America. Though it does not attempt to discuss any of the bigoted origins of our country (certainly the subject is important, but this is not exactly the movie for that kind of discussion), Ben gleefully brings up the fact that by signing the Declaration of Independence, our forebears were unequivocally committing high treason. “Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong,” he says, “in order to do what they knew was right.” Sure, the particulars of this statement are complicated, but it does reveal the idealistic, rebel spark at the heart of our nation. And that is certainly something to be thankful for.