Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the sixth generation of the Gates family to be fascinated - nay, obsessed - by the prospect of a huge treasure that originated with the Knights Templar (who evolved into the Freemasons) between the 11th and 14th centuries, and found its way to America, where it became part of a super-secret plan hatched by Freemasons George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as emergency funds for the Revolutionary War. Gates and his technically brilliant associate, Riley (Justin Bartha) are on a research mission to find the treasure, financed by the ambitious and ruthless Ian Howe (Sean Bean), whose intentions are far from honourable. The search leads Gates - and the now-alienated Howe - to the Declaration of Independence, on the back of which they believe is a secretly coded invisible map that reveals the location of the treasure which National Archives conservator Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) finds too far-fetched to believe – until she gets involved.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
I am a sucker for films (and books) that cleverly combine reality with fiction; where the facts are really well researched and then slipped into the fantasy of the writer/s' world, to bloom and give off the scent of verité. The story of National Treasure is built on a complex set of facts surrounding the founding fathers, the Knights Templar, the Declaration of Independence and symbols on the US Dollar bill. And it's a seductively fanciful story, embellished by the hint of possibility.
One reason I find these stories so engaging is that the facts provide the strangest and juiciest parts of them; for instance, the series of letters written to an early American newspaper by a person who signed as Silence Dogood, claiming to be a middle aged woman, were a prank perpetrated by a teenage Benjamin Franklin. In the film, they contain a hidden code that refers to the treasure ... and one of Franklin's real inventions, bifocal glasses, is given a crucial role in the decoding of certain secret messages.
Another fact based element is the evolution of the Knights Templar into the Freemasons, whose members included several of the Founding Fathers. Their symbols appear on the US Dollar bill, and the film cleverly uses those symbols as the glue to unite fact and fiction.
In many ways National Treasure is an entertaining door to aspects of American history, and could serve to ignite interest in the subject by Americans as well as others; this would be no bad thing. And perhaps if you're like me, you'd get even more out of the film if you had access to a bit of the background - and you can: just go to the film's website and browse through the background material. And of course you can widen your reading from there.
But even if you know nothing of American history, the screenplay has enough establishing material to fill you in - albeit you'd have to pay attention closely or see the film more than once, to absorb it all. As an entertainment on its own, the film delivers a modern adventure with rustic, historical elements. These give the film a texture and a mood; the action begins at the very beginning and the tension is maintained through a well constructed story that never forgets to be human and humorous.
Young Riley (Justin Bartha), for instance, is a hapless sidekick whose self deprecating nature provides some dry laughs, and Nicolas Cage also indulges in some wry humour, in a characterisation that has all the resourcefulness and learning of an Indiana Jones as well as a surprisingly well mannered and decent scientist.
Sean Bean, always a useful actor for his credibility and authority, makes a dangerous villain, and John Voight uses his well practiced technique to great advantage as Ben's father, who is both fascinated by the treasure and tired of the chase.
Production design and music help put us in the place and in the mood, and Jon Turtletaub's direction keeps the film within the realms of possibility, avoiding the Hollywood trap of overstating everything: you'd hardly need to gild the lily on this one. It's a film to enjoy for its simple pleasures, but it's not mindless. And perhaps most pleasing, the relationships between the characters is one of the layers that makes the film engaging.
Review by Louise Keller:
National Treasure is a big popcorn movie. There's a legend, a lost treasure, a riddle, a heist, heroes, villains and a romance for good measure. Add some action and humour to the mix, and you have an often implausible, but largely entertaining film, mostly due to its inventive storyline and endearing anti-hero. The plot never takes itself too seriously, and this modern-day Indiana Jones-style adventure, reveals all kinds of interesting facts about American history. Cage excels at playing eccentric sort of guys, and Benjamin Franklin Gates is precisely that. Gates is obsessed by the story of lost treasure his grandfather (Christopher Plummer) told him as a wide-eyed, impressionable lad, and has spent his life looking for clues. But he is not a dreamer. He has the kind of logic that would make him a whiz at cryptic crosswords, especially if the topic is American History. His idea to steal the American Declaration of Independence, and the way he goes about it is so wacky, that we can't help but be intrigued.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, still riding the crest of a wave from The Pirates of the Caribbean, has recruited director Jon Turteltaub (The Kid, While You Were Sleeping) to captain this ship, and the whole project feels as though it is fun. The key to a story about goodies and baddies relies on a villain with enough gravitas, and Sean Bean's Ian Howe offers just that. Gates and Howe start as friends, and become enemies, while the subplot of the father/son relationship between Gates and his estranged father (Jon Voight) is a thread that remains a constant. Diane Kruger's Abigail Chase, the beautiful National Archives conservator who looks anything but a library-type, becomes first the damsel in distress, and subsequently the love interest. The casting of Harvey Keitel as the FBI chief is a top decision and the only character that doesn't really fire is Gates' tech-wiz side-kick (Justin Bartha), who the scriptwriters no doubt intended to provide the humorous light-relief. Perhaps Noah Taylor (as Lara Croft's assistant) might have been a better choice.
Gates follows cryptic clues that take him from the barren, freezing Arctic, to Washington's national monuments as well as those in Philadelphia and Manhattan. Even a dollar bill figures prominently in the search for answers to the riddle. The scenes I enjoyed most were those when we have no idea what will happen next, like the gala function when Gates cleverly finds a way to get Abigail's fingerprints, so he can get through security to where the American Declaration of Independence is being stored. When he can't get the document out of its case, he takes the whole framed box and dice, which, with its bullet-proof glass, becomes a shield when bullets start flying. There's a nice moment when Gates lands on his father's doorstep in the middle of the night in search of the historic Silence Dogood Letters, and ends up at the kitchen table working out ways of making invisible ink visible.
The Indiana-Jones-like scenes towards the end of the film are too derivative and far-fetched to take too seriously, and at over two hours, the film is a little long. National Treasure is the kind of film that grows on you. It's a pretty good yarn and the original touches make it worth seeing.
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NATIONAL TREASURE (M)
CAST: Nicolas Cage, Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Justin Bartha
PRODUCER: Jon Turteltaub, Jerry Bruckheimer
DIRECTOR: Jon Turteltaub
SCRIPT: Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley (story by Jim Kouf)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Caleb Deschanel
EDITOR: William Goldenberg
MUSIC: Trevor Rabin
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Norris Spencer
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 25, 2004