One of the previews I have been noticing lately is for a strange flick titled The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. It stars Nicholas Cage as himself, and seems to be about himself. Between Cage’s reputation and the themes the trailer suggests, it looks like a fitting role for somebody who has a reputation for being a little “out there,” to put it nicely. Then again, I have yet to see it, so who knows what it will be like? It could turn out to be the best movie of 2022. I have not reviewed many Nicholas Cage films for The Legionnaire, but I have seen enough to where I stand by my preconceptions. Though it is somewhat toned down from the others, National Treasure (2004) is of the same ilk. Yes, much of the snarkiness to follow is the result of me being a historian and seeing the fever dream of conspiracy theories and past events mashed into one Nicholas Cage ball. At the same time, you may rightly ask me: why do you take things so seriously? Good question.
It was a dark and stormy night (literally) when we open National Treasure with a young Benjamin “Ben” Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) looking through his grandfather John Adams Gates’ (Christopher Plummer) attic. And there went my first chuckle. Anyway, Old Man Gates reveals to young Ben the Gates’ family secret: they hold the key to a vast treasure that has been collected over the centuries by everyone from the Knights Templar to the Freemasons. The story is interrupted by Ben’s embittered dad Patrick Gates (Jon Voight), who believes that there is nothing behind these stories. Still, the seeds had already been planted in Ben, and we then move to modern times when his adult self (Nicholas Cage) is journeying north of the Arctic Circle in a snowcat. He is traveling with his partner Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and his financier Ian Howe (Sean Beane). Their target is a long-lost American ship from the early nineteenth century called the Charlotte, which Ben thinks is where they will find the answer to a mysterious note left to his ancestor nearly 180 years previously. Ian is expecting the treasure, and when they find nothing more than an intricate meerschaum pipe, he begins to get impatient with Ben. In deciphering some of the clues on the smoking implement, Ben believes it leads to a map on the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ founding document. It is a piece of parchment that they do not let anyone walk up to an examine. Hence, the only way of getting at it is to steal it, which Ben is against. Ian, on the other hand, lets on that he had a previous life where he could track down people who could arrange such illicit operations. Ben remains obstinate, and Ian turns on his former partner, nearly killing Ben and Riley in the wreck of the Charlotte by locking them inside with gun powder that is about to detonate. They manage to escape, and Ben realizes that he must steal the Declaration of Independence before Ian. This comes after trying to convince several authorities that there is a legitimate threat. Their last attempt is to speak to Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), one of the archivists tasked with maintaining the founding document, to get her to let them look at the paper. She refuses, and Ben’s decision is made. Coincidentally, Ben and Ian set in motion their plots to seize the Declaration of Independence on the same night, though Ben is the first to get to it. Dr. Chase sees them with it, and such is her dedication to her job that she opts to join Ben and Riley. This is made a clearer choice since Ian and his men obviously appear to have ill-designs because they have guns. You know, bad guy stuff. The heist also brings the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), headed by Agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel). Realizing that they cannot return to their place, Ben takes the document to his father’s place and are able to begin decoding the clues on the map. This then takes them to Philadelphia, where they find a set of glasses hidden in Independence Hall that will help them read the map in earnest. Ian’s gang is following them step-by-step, along with the FBI, who take Ben into custody and tell him that he must cooperate in getting back the Declaration of Independence, which falls into Ian’s hands when Ben is forced to split up from Dr. Chase and Riley. The FBI then listens in on a proposed exchange to take place aboard the USS Intrepid in New York harbor. However, Ben gives them the slip when he gets there, and meets up with Ian to decode the rest of the map. This takes them to Trinity Church on Wall Street. When Ian refuses to let Ben go after giving assistance, having taken Patrick hostage, everyone is forced to join in the descent underneath the church where the final clues lead. When it appears to be another dead-end, Ben and Patrick feed Ian another clue that sends him to Boston, while the rest go on to uncover the long sought-after treasure. With this accomplished, Ben is able to hand over not only the Declaration of Independence, but a horde of incalculable wealth, and Ian is arrested in Boston. Though they donate back the overwhelming majority of the haul, their finder’s fee is more than enough to set them up for life, as evidenced by Riley driving away in a Lamborghini at the end.
You may have noticed my stated chuckled when introducing the protagonists in National Treasure, but I did not mention the equally silly name of the antagonist. One of the reasons why Patrick is so embittered at the beginning, though he comes around at the sight of the collected riches, is that he believes the treasure to be a myth created by the Americans to keep it away from the British. If you know your history, then you might remember that the overall commander of British forces in the colonies during the American Revolution was William Howe. He also conducted the war from New York City, where the climactic events of the film take place. I am guessing those responsible for the movie did not think many would notice the smaller moments like this of hitting things so squarely on the historical nose. Further, I hope that people do not believe that this is how history is done. I like best what Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) says in Indiana Jones at the Last Crusade (1989) how the bulk of archaeological work is done in the library. The same is true for history, though I get that does not make for good cinema. The only reason I bring any of this up is because of the way that Ben and Dr. Chase are able to recall minute details in the spur of the moment. I understand that they evidently spent a lot of time studying these subjects, but their recall is superhuman. Or I am just envious, you take your pick.
The other silly conveniences in National Treasure have to do with a long defunct order of the Catholic Church known as the Knights Templar. You can disappear down a long rabbit hole of conspiracy theories looking into this set of warrior monks that came about during the Crusades. The film does not really get into them (and neither will I), but simply mentioning them in the same sentence as the Freemasons means they are complicit in conspiracies. For our purposes, they are the ones who found this ancient treasure under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem when the Crusaders took the Holy City from Islam. From there, with the help of the Freemasons, they moved the horde around, keeping it out of prying hands. I find this concept silliest of all, but it is because I know my Catholic history and teachings. To be clear, the Knights Templar were disbanded in the fourteenth century by the Church, though there is a somewhat similar, far less militant group today known as the Order of Christ. Either way, they are associated with the Freemasons because that group adopted many of the rules of the Knights Templar. However, the Church does not permit membership in Freemasonry because many of their practices involve a corruption of Christianity. As such, I bristle when these groups get lumped together.
I do not have many positive things to say about National Treasure. Aside from its conflation of Catholicism and Freemasonry, and a laundry list of other silly moments, it is not an objectionable movie. I will also credit the tenderness with which Ben treats the budding romance with Dr. Chase, as well as his overall selfless. It is just a shame that it is all wrapped up in this dumb package.