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November 21, 2004

National Treasure : If Jerry Bruckheimer taught your AP history class

National Treasure is everything you would expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer production: a movie that groans and inevitably collapses under the weight of a heavy score, even heavier action sequences, and heavier-still sentimentality.

I assume that, conceptually, National Treasure was supposed to conflate The Da Vinci Code and the Indiana Jones trilogy. Yet, what we get is an ugly looking hybrid that neither accomplishes the clever twists of the former nor the excellent dialogue and sense of adventure of the latter. In fact, while the Indiana Jones movies were able to make their protagonist into a hero-nerd, Cage's Ben Gates is simply an eccentric man with a conspiracy theory about American history. Likewise, the exaltation of the historical artifact that Spielberg's trilogy achieves is never realized in National Treasure. It is exactly this jumping and falling flat on its face that makes National Treasure so painful to watch.

National Treasure never convinces the audience that they have a compelling interest in the treasure hunt. In the Indiana Jones films, the artifacts' fate have a direct affect on humankind and consequently we are deathly afraid that they could fall in the hands of the Nazis. With National Treasure, on the other hand, the discovery of the supposed treasure is simply to vindicate the Gates Family and to keep it out of the hands of the villain, while we are never told what this bad guy would do with it. But it is unfair of me to compare the film to such a revered series of movies, and besides, I don't need Indiana Jones to help me bash National Treasure.

Cage's performance as Ben Gates, one man in a long familial line of historians who are ridiculed by the academic community for their treasure theory, is hindered by the surprisingly shallow character development and the amateur dialogue he has to work with. Likewise, Diane Kruger, who plays Cage's love interest, and Sean Bean, who plays the villain, both suffer from the same disease. Kruger's two kisses with Cage are not awkward because of either actor's ability, but rather because of the bizarre context and crappy lines that surround them. Bean cannot help but seem capricious in the beginning of the film when he attempts to kill his long-time partner Cage, and he becomes an uninteresting, evil plot foil for the remainder of the film.

Similarly, Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel, who both have supporting roles, are given little in the way of development and far too many cheesy lines. In fact, the only interesting performance, let alone character, is Cage's plucky, but silly sidekick, Riley, played by newcomer Justin Bartha. Bartha's lines largely express the audience's feelings to the plot while it's happening: he is skeptical of the enterprise, bewildered by the action, and positively unmoved by the dialogue. Unfortunately, even Riley succumbs to the corny clich├ęs with which only a movie like this can conclude.

All the actors, from the major parts to the minor, appear to be running from the heinous beast that is the script, trying to escape it only to be knocked down and held there by the heavy-handed plot and dialogue until the credits finally roll. It is a shame that such competent actors as Cage, Voight, Bean, and Keitel had to attach themselves to such a pathetic piece of movie-making. But in the end, it is difficult to blame them for their performances in the film. Indeed, the audience is more inclined to pity them as if they were middle school students putting on a play written by a loopy English teacher, who has decided to focus on the home-made costumes and the garishly painted sets rather than the plot or the dialogue.

The thing about the plot that bothers me (and I should let the reader know that I am an avid fan of American history before I say this) is that National Treasure essentially posits that the founding fathers were more concerned with hiding a large treasure from the human race for as long as possible than they were with creating the American republic. This insulting assertion is manifested in the fact that the treasure map is on the back of the Declaration of Independence and, as a result, Cage is running around the country with the document slung around his shoulder. It is as if to say, "The Declaration's importance does not derive from the fact that it proclaimed a radical belief in human equality and the right of every human to secure inalienable liberties. It is really important because it contains a map that shows the way to a lot of gold." I know I am extrapolating, but it is important to realize that the film is cheapening a revered document in order to use it as a plot device. Often a movie is one man's garbage and another's treasure, but National Treasure is nothing but trash.