Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) descends from an old American family that passes on secret clues to the location of the Knights Templars’ mythic treasure. (Gates family myth claims the treasure was carried to the colonies and hidden by the Masons among the founding fathers, including George Washington.) Gates is obsessed with the quest not because he wants the money — he’s the good guy in National Treasure — but because he wants to prove that his family, shunned for over 100 years by mainstream historians as cranks, has been right.
Gates solves his first clue through the patronage of a very dodgy but very rich English entrepreneur, Ian Howe (Sean Bean). But when the Declaration of Independence turns out to contain the next clue and Howe plans to steal it, Gates’ patriotism kicks in. When no one will heed his warnings about the plot, not even the National Archives curator, Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) whom he woos with the rare Washington campaign button missing from her collection, he decides to steal the Declaration himself. From that point on, Gates, Howe, and assistant Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) decipher codes and speed from one historical site to another, in classic treasure hunt fashion.
National Treasure whips enough conspiracy theory into history to transform academic minutiae into keys to a centuries-long treasure hunt, while making sure the signs (the Liberty Bell, the dollar bill) are familiar. It pits a son against a father, and lets youthful idealism trump the cynicism and practicality of the old. The good are good, if fallible and reluctantly heroic, while the bad are irredeemably bad, but never brutal. The only dead bodies are skeletal, mummified or falling out of coffins. These ingredients produce a genuinely, if superficially, appealing family film. But the film’s benign surface barely conceals some rather less appealing ideas, namely, a relentlessly WASPy view of American history and some very gung-ho nationalism.
Much of the movie’s charm lies in a character-driven script interpreted by an accomplished cast. Although the storyline panders shamelessly to the sort of fascination with cosmic conspiracy theories (Masons, Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the Illuminati, Opus Dei) that has propelled Dan Brown to bestsellerdom, none of the actors condescends to the material. Cage turns in a delightful son-of-Indiana-Jones performance, stripped of his usual tics and melodramatics. His performance is more generous than usual, too, as he willingly plays straight man to Bartha (who is granted the film’s best lines, including, “Who wants to go down the creepy tunnel inside the tomb first?”). Poole provides a solid point of identification for audience members neither seduced by the quest nor awed by the treasure, as his priorities remain food, safety and his loyalty to his friend, Gates.
Lest the audience forget that life is all about transformation from cynicism to idealism (at least in the Disney universe), Poole is mirrored by Gates’ father, Patrick Henry Gates (Jon Voight). At the beginning of the movie, he has long abandoned interest in the Gates reputation, and is thus estranged from his son. Worldly and crusty, Patrick Henry reveals just a trace of battened-down nostalgia for the dreams of his youth.
The movie’s conservative take on America past and present is manifested in its white, male heroes; apart from Abigail, none of them seems to need to work. Gates lives the life of the leisured amateur historian, with apparently unlimited resources for computer equipment, van hire, and costumes. And he’s descended from a trusted friend of Andrew Jackson, accentuating his status as part of America’s powerful upper class. Chase is the only female character in the film, and her supporting role as love interest and occasional clue-helper is woefully underwritten (which, artistically if not ideologically, probably improved the movie, given Kruger’s limited range).
Dashing from one site of political supremacy (past or present) to another, the hunters pose in front of monuments in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York (including Episcopalian Trinity Church where Alexander Hamilton lies buried). The skill with which National Treasure links elite power to the Declaration of Independence and then allies it to such familiar objects of day-to-day life as the dollar bill or clothing from Urban Outfitters, conveys a kind of natural alliance between privilege and authentic American identity, between that privilege and world-changing power.
The film goes one step further, linking the founders of the United States to an age-old secret tradition of Western civilization. By casting them as the guardians of a treasure so immense its discovery will corrupt all humanity, it bolsters the kind of “we know best” nationalism that so marks American foreign policy today. Just as, in the world of the film, Gates and his friends have to prove themselves worthy custodians of the treasure by solving esoteric intellectual clues, so too do many countries in the world have to prove themselves worthy recipients of American favor and largesse through the passing of equally arbitrary tests of virtue (usually charted by how closely their political, economic, and social organizations might approximate to those on the banks of the Potomac). This movie is popular propaganda at its best — high quality creative work allied to a resounding endorsement of a status quo the American electorate seems determined to maintain.