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National Treasure   C

Walt Disney Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer, David Dayan Fisher.

Review by Rob Vaux

National Treasure is a really dumb movie made all the dumber by the fact that it thinks it's smart. It's remarkably pleased with itself, its tricks causing it no end of delight even if the rest of the world can see right through them. It comes up with neat concepts, then parades them around without thinking of the underlying logic required to make them work. It's tough to hate it, for there is no malice in its heart; it's even kind of fun in a Disney theme ride sort of way, and the family-friendly image it's aiming for is justly earned. But you just can't get over the big foolish look on its face... the one that says it would really be much happier mashing up crayons on the floor.

The framework is moderately amusing. Many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, a secret society whose general benevolence was cloaked in mysterious ritual. Signs of Freemason influence can be found throughout American culture, most famously in the all-seeing pyramid on the back of the one-dollar bill. What a romp, then, to assume that the Masons hid more than just aprons and handshakes behind those signs: that maybe George Washington and his friends had a priceless treasure buried somewhere, and that they used the trappings of our government -- the currency, the documents, landmarks like Independence Hall -- as clues leading right to it. The Indiana Jones films had a blast with similar notions and National Treasure does its best to reconstitute them. So we get earnest fortune-hunter Ben Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage), whose family has pursued the fabled treasure for six generations and has been subsequently banished to the crackpot wing of the Fox Mulder Institute for Very Weird Theories. When evil billionaire Ian Howe (Sean Bean) agrees to fund the search for the treasure, Gates thinks his ship has finally come in. But then Howe does what evil billionaires always do, and our hero finds himself in a frozen shipwreck with cackling flunkies pointing guns at him. One highly improbable escape later, the race is on: Howe accompanied by a gaggle of sinister underlings, Gates with his newfound plucky sidekick (Justin Bartha) and a romantic interest (Diane Kruger) young enough to be his daughter.

As entertainment goes, National Treasure marginally holds its own. Director Jon Turteltaub keeps things pointed the right way, and the various clues to the treasure unfold with modestly enjoyable pacing. Bartha has some good lines, Bean is adept at twirling his moustache, and the film is nicely shot by DP Caleb Deschanel, including some lovely images of various national landmarks. Its modus operandi -- the use of those landmarks as clues in the map -- is certainly intriguing, and stays within a framework of vaguely recognizable historical facts. All of it works... until one actually begins to think about what's on-screen.

National Treasure is monstrously implausible of course, and logic gaps are thick on the ground. But that's to be expected in a film like this. What makes it less forgivable here, however, is the fact that such gaffes are tied up in the very details that National Treasure finds so appealing. For example, it's cool to note that the Revolutionaries didn't have daylight savings time, and indeed to make that fact vital to the discovery of an important clue (hidden in a brick upon which a shadow falls at a specific time of day). But if you're going to point out such details, you can't ignore other, more problematic details, such as the position of the sun (which shifts during different seasons) or the likelihood that the brick in question may have needed replacing in the last 200 years. Issues like that confound most of National Treasure's little hooks, diminishing their cleverness by requiring us to shut up and go along with it. Other, more superficial clinkers pop up as well (ancient gunpowder which is still good, floorboards that rot before the ropes surrounding them do), and while most of them are easy enough to shrug off, they repeatedly derail National Treasure's otherwise nifty little tricks.

So too do the usual trappings of producer Jerry Bruckheimer unduly cloud the proceedings: chases that go nowhere, scenes that never end, and a moral subtext that's far more uncomfortable than intended. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treasure hunt's primary conceit -- that the Declaration of Independence holds the most important links, hidden on the back in invisible ink. Howe intends to steal it, prompting Gates to try to steal it first. All well and good, but the heist is routine and not especially interesting, punctuated by one of the most unimaginative car chases in recent years. Gates' moral quandary at having to filch such a valuable document receives a great deal of attention, and yet National Treasure never really thinks it through, leaving a lot of unanswered questions in its hero's contemplative wake. Add to that the expected amount of plot exposition and convoluted explanations and we're left with a far more diminished package than its creators had in mind.

Despite that, the movie retains a strangely lovable core. Its mistakes are obvious, its idiocy plain to see... and yet it's so well-meaning that it seems unfair to hold too much against it. Turteltaub strikes a light, jovial tone that never rubs the audience the wrong way, and for all its expository gobbledygook, it never becomes dreary. There's an energy to it that holds one's attention, even as its pretensions lend themselves to snickers behind the hand. It's like a beloved village idiot, adored by everyone as long as he stays away from the matches. A dumb movie National Treasure remains, but only the unkindest heart could call it bad.

Review published 11.19.2004.

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