National Treasure (2004)
PG, which is mind-blowing right now. Now I'm thinking it's the Disney name being thrown around that gets this movie the PG rating. There's some mild language, but it is really intense. Like, death is very real in this movie. There's gunplay and daring-do! The bad guys are actually pretty intense scary bad guys and it's live action. Again, I'll often play for a PG, but this one is a weird choice for PG. I would categorize it as PG-13 in a heartbeat.
DIRECTOR: Jon Turteltaub
Predicament: I don't want to write today. I really don't want to write about National Treasure. I don't have any particularly strong feelings about National Treasure. It's a fine movie. Another predicament: I know that people absolutely adore this movie. I realized a while ago that a lot of people don't actually read my posts, but just click the image and say "I love that movie." After I talked about the sexually aggressive atmosphere of Swiss Family Robinson and the only comments I would get would be in the ballpark of "Oh, man! That movie's great! Thanks for posting!" I'm probably going to get into some similar trouble with National Treasure because everyone I talk to refers to this movie as one of the greats, despite the fact that it's just fine and fairly forgettable. Again, I want people to love what they love. I'm not here to ruin things. But it's going to be a bit of an effort to write a lot about National Treasure and to say anything really meaningful.
For a franchise that owes so much to Indiana Jones, National Treasure does the smart thing and make it contemporary. It's all a bit silly and the very casual attitude towards the freemasons bothers me. I went to an extremely conservative Catholic university and heard horror stories about the freemasons. Those were our campfire tales. But at the root of National Treasure probably lies what is blatantly there in the title: a sense of patriotism. In my look at Mission: Impossible 2, I have this theory that the progression of film would have been very different had there been no 9/11. The late '90s and early-2000s were such an aggro period for film. Everything wanted to be The Matrix and it looked like nothing was going to slow that down. But National Treasure --and this is a criminally goofy thesis --may be the first example of contemporary cinema tonally of this era. I mean, even National Treasure might be a bit dated at this point. It's 2020 and this was made in 2004. But look at the colors and brightness of this big budget action film. Compare it to those other movies I mentioned. There's nothing fundamentally cynical about National Treasure. I was noticing the weird silver linings that come out of tragedy. National Treasure is a response to a broken America coming together to be patriotic. If you tried making this four years earlier, this movie probably would have been laughed at pretty hard.
National Treasure is an attempt to make the Hall of Presidents from Epcot Center as a movie. I know that I should be throwing in the Smithsonian, but National Treasure is Disney's version of American history. There's something a little rad about the whole thing. The Smithsonian is rad as well, but it doesn't really feel the need to sexy-up America. It flirts with America as is. But this is the post Pirates of the Caribbean Disney. They realized that live-action, toeing-the-line-of-PG-13 adventure films is the way to grab those older audiences. Imagine being Disney and there's this big tragedy that is affecting America, having the Pirates tone ready to go and then just combine the national mood with your original formula. It kind of makes itself. Yet, there's nothing fundamentally gross about National Treasure. There was a danger there. This is still in the era of healthy patriotism, not Operation Gridlock patriotism. (I can't believe I live in this country. Yeah, I'm pretty bitter right now.) Part of me wants to ascribe that perfect version of American history that Benjamin Franklin Gates believes that into a precursor into what we have today. But this is more Americana than it is traditionaly patriotism. Maybe that's dangerous, but it reads more Rockwellian than anything else.
In terms of themes of the actual film, there's something really meta and self-conscious happening in the movie. The conflict begins when Gates calls Ian (Sean Bean just continuing his 006 performance) out on wanting to steal the Declaration of Independence. Part of this has to be blamed on marketing, but Gates has to steal the Declaration of Independence. I'm not talking about narratively. It is the central conceit of the film and this moment, when Gates lectures Ian, brings up some interesting questions. In this moment, Ian is kind of right. He's evil because of his goal is ultimately selfish while Gates is doing the same action, with an altruistic attitude. This brings up questions about the nature of the action. National Treasure, in a weird way, plays the hypothetical moral question as a central premise to the movie. It brings up something unimaginable and imbued with value beyond its making: the Declaration of Independence. Like many hypothetical situations, it forces the dynamic into a black-and-white fallacy. Gates tries warning everyone that the Declaration would be stolen. No one listens to him, despite the fact that he has pretty specific details about how and why it would happen.
I want to attack the movie for forcing a black-and-white binary on the film, but then I also realized that America would be entering the era of questioning national intelligence at this point in history. In 2003 / 2004, I'm pretty sure that there was evidence that there were tips that Al Qaida would be prepping for the attacks on the World Trade Center. But I also think that the movie takes a little bit of a shortcut to get where it needs to be. It has this really over the top premise and it just gets to the goods. America is after Benjamin Franklin Gates and it is ignoring the real problem. This conflict works for the film. It's great that we have an Enemy of the State situation, which I also have to imagine is a Jerry Bruckheimer thing. I don't knwo why I like the idea that the protagonist has this ovewhelming problem that he has to solve, but he's also on the run as well.
I imagine that people love the idea of the illuminati. With National Treasure, the movie offers a nicer, more palatable version of the Illuminati. There's something terribly whimsical about the forefathers building underground palaces and using clues to keep national secrets. But it's interesting if I am making the comparison to the Indiana Jones movies. When we watch an Indiana Jones movie, there are all these absurd puzzles. It seems like these primitives had these absurd connections to the universe. The gold halls would always be juxtaposed to the simplicity of a jungle or a desert. However, National Treasure has its cake and eats it too (it's been a while since I've thrown that old chestnut around). The founding fathers were both geniuses and civilized. While watching the movie, it seems like the founding fathers were so complicated and deep. But while writing this, I wonder why the secrecy. I know the movie offers explanations. But it seems like banks would probably be more of a smart move. Yeah, I know. No FDIC. But it seems like the value of this magnificent treasure (which is kind of a lazy prize on the part of the screenwriters) is only boosted by the idea of its secrecy. Like, who would be able to redeem this treasure if everything is buried deeper and deeper? The purpose of the treasure was to give America this great economic reserve. But the very nature of hiding it this intensely defeats the purpose of even having a treasure, right?
National Treasure is a fun movie and totally doesn't deserve this level of scrutiny. If you are watching the movie and thinking about this stuff, you probably missed the point. But the more you think about it, the less the movie works. Who cares though? It's really long, but keeps your attention for the majority of the movie.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.