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Published on February 17, 2005

Suspenders of disbelief

Of the nine scriptwriters who worked on National Treasure, the latest Nicholas Cage vehicle -- yes, nine, including Oren Aviv, the president of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing -- not one, it seems, did enough historical research to realise that the American Declaration of Independence was graced by 56, not 55, signatures. Nor is this detail the only symptom of a sloppy script: anachronisms, factual errors, discontinuities and plot holes abound in this $100 million Jerry Bruckheimer flick. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, the film is now playing successfully all over Cairo.
Nick Cage's peculiarly constipated performance was preposterously deemed worth $20 million; the platitudes he delivered, for one side of a multidimensional flop, were never sufficiently catchy. He plays Ben Gates, a history aficionado who spends his life traversing deserts of sand and ice across the globe -- in pursuit of the treasure desperately sought by his forebears (John Voight and Christopher Plummer, as father and grandfather respectively, have sacrificed their reputation in the academic community for believing in the big catch).
The Freemasons and the mysterious symbols on the US dollar bill -- the pyramid and the single eye -- gave way to the genesis of this fantastical storyline: the Founding Fathers bury the fabled Treasure of the Knights Templar to hide it from the British during the Revolutionary War, leaving a trail of clues which, once deciphered by Cage and his sidekick Justin Bartha (Riley Poole) -- a task that turns out to be ludicrously effortless -- lead them to the original, heavily-guarded copy of the Declaration of Independence, on the back of which should be an invisible map of the treasure's exact location.
The three generations of treasure hunters in the Gates family -- Ben, Patrick and John -- are, incidentally, named after Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and John Adams, three Founding Fathers. But it is Ben Gates who hits the jackpot when he finally makes his way to a church basement bursting with ancient Egyptian gold.
How Ben gets to the bottom of the riddle is surprisingly simple: he steals the document in question in an effort to safeguard it from a gang of British baddies, led, as it happens, by the old crook Ian Howe (Sean Bean), his rival in the treasure quest. Ben breaks the law, drags National Archives senior employee Abigail Chase (Troy's Diane Kruger) into the pursuit, evades the FBI team led by Harvey Keitel (who is just one step behind Ben at every turn), smears the 300-year-old parchment with lemon juice to make the map visible, et voila: gold, gold, gold. Never mind that the patriotic hero decided to give up the treasure hunt once he realised it would involve stealing a national document -- he did the deed, in the end, merely to protect it from the British fiends.
Such patriotism, all too thinly veiled in Cage's lines, is one of the most irritating aspects of the film. What could be the meaning of a statement to the effect that governments should be changed if they are not "doing right"? "Right" from the viewpoint of who? And who is to be held responsible for changing a government, and into what should it be changed, when all is said and done?
To rate an action film strewn with violence as requiring only Parental Guidance (PG), what is more, could be an attempt to indoctrinate as many elements of the public as possible into the governments-should-be-changed discourse, at the same time serving as an excuse for the lead character to engage in a Machiavellian act if ever there was one. Historically, it is true, the parchment of the Declaration does incorporate a line about "the duty to change governments" -- a key mandate of the document on which modern American history was founded, the leaders fearing centralised government of any kind.
Exactly how untactfully insensitive about America's messy involvements in the region can one get, though? One American viewer reacted thus to the blatant propaganda the film contains: "Did America learn anything from the events of 11 September? Obviously not. America's presence around the world is in many ways judged not from its political actions but from popular culture. National Treasure merely gives weight to the argument that in America the blinkers are still on and that the US isn't just an inward looking nation as a whole, but is on an individual level self-obsessed and self-deluding. Riding roughshod over history is not the sign of a nation aware of its place in the world but a more worrying indication of an unjustified arrogance that shows no sign of abating."
Suspension of disbelief proves exceedingly problematic as the clues are unravelled, for this and other reasons. Several actors go so far as to call the characters by their real names in different scenes: one really wonders what the script might have looked like before the screenwriting team of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott was hired by the producer for an uncredited polishing up.
As far as history of film is concerned, National Treasure will likely be remembered as having been nominated, not awarded, for the Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Models and Miniatures in a Motion Picture for the treasure room replicas and the Saturn Award of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA for best action/thriller/adventure and best supporting actress.

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