National Treasure (2004): I Need More Galas
I need more galas.
Scroll through reviews of National Treasure (2004) on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and you’ll notice a lot of critics describing the movie as a kind of set-in-America Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Da Vinci Code (then in production for 2006). After all, it’s an adventure film that involves some really valuable old stuff. But those comparisons undersell just how American a movie this is, as the love child of their obsession with the American Revolution and Top Gun. I mean this literally: Jerry Bruckheimer produced both films. I remember Bruckheimer saying once that he felt badly that some kid had seen Top Gun, enlisted thinking he’d be Maverick, and now was stuck in a windowless room seven stories down on an aircraft carrier. I don’t think he’s said anything similar about National Treasure – which apparently did cause an uptick in visits to the National Archives – but for anyone about, oh, say, now about twenty-five, in grad school: I have not once been invited to a gala.
The premise of the movie in a nutshell: Benjamin Franklin Gates [Nicholas Cage] has inherited his family’s quest to find a legendary treasure hidden by the Founding Fathers. The clues range from a Meerschaum pipe frozen in a shipwreck in the Canadian Arctic to an Ottendorf cipher in invisible ink on the back of that most hallowed document, the Declaration of Independence. In assembling these clues, Cage jumps off an aircraft carrier, runs along the roof of Independence Hall, and gets shot at by bad guys (all of whom speak with British accents, because apparently Americans really are still reliving the 1770s). And stuff gets blown up about every twenty minutes.
Really there are two historians in the movie: Gates, the last of “six generations of fools,” and a senior archivist at the National Archives, Dr. Abigail Chase [Diane Kruger]. I’m going to focus on the Chase character, because the movie rests in large part on Gates’ difference and (arguably rather justified) alienation from professional historians. This is exploited by Ian Howe [Sean Bean], Gates’ patron-turned-rival:
You spent your entire life only to have the respected historical community treat you
and your family with mockery and contempt. You should be able to rub this treasure
in their arrogant faces, and I want you to have the chance to do this.
It also sets up the inevitable opposites-attract dynamic with Chase. We have the passionate and rogue amateur (though with a Georgetown University undergrad History degree) with the rather more pedantic but polished professional; the polymath MacGyver with a screwdriver against the historian with a desk blotter. (That the lone-wolf, I’m-not-believed-by-the-Smithsonian, “I’ll just go dig this ship up” Gates is the hero of the piece may help explain why American political culture remains so persistently anti-intellectual and sympathetic to “fake news,” but that’s another post.)
The characterization of Chase as an historian can’t be divorced from her presentation and treatment as a woman. While she’s presumably the highest-ranking historian in government office, the movie never forgets she looks like Diane Kruger. To the twenty-five-year-old in grad school imagining this as a career path, please note that while Kruger was 28 years old at the time of the film’s release, the current National Archivist is … 73.
And even though she is supposed to be the very embodiment of that “respected historical community,” she’s … not really respected very often.
Abigail: “Mr. Brown.”
Ben: “Dr. Chase.”
Riley [over the radio]:“Is that that hot girl? How does she look?”
Because we all quite comfortably change in front of men we’ve just met and who tend to forget we are high-ranking professionals.
Unrealistic plot detail #749: she is able to buy the first pair of jeans she tries on.
When she’s not being objectified, she’s being patronized. Which arguably is worse, considering
she’s supposed to be the ranking professional here.
Ben: You’re still shouting and it’s really starting to annoy. You’d do well, Dr. Chase, to be a bit more civilized in this instance.
Clearly #metoo hadn’t yet surfaced over at the studio – so, of course, Gates can also grab and kiss her at will. Still, Kruger manages to speak for all of us with her expression.
And yet – it’s never in doubt how much she cares about the documents for which she feels responsible. And responsible by virtue of her position, not an innate sense of ownership by birthright (they have to explain away Kruger’s accent by making Chase a naturalized American). Her pacing at the gala shows she does think something is amiss, and she doesn’t like the thought of these artifacts being vulnerable.
She’s most upset (and yes, shouting) not after almost being killed, but at the thought that “those lunatics” have the Declaration. Even when she is wearing heels and ballgown, you’d still have to pry it from her cold, dead hands. And in the movie’s grandest romantic moment, both she and Gates admit they’d have dropped the other down the shaft in order to save the document. That’s love, I guess.
She’s also quite resolute that, regardless of what Gates thinks, she remains the custodian of the document. Hands off, buddy: if you’re going to rub lemon juice on the Declaration of Independence, “Then someone who’s trained to handle antique documents is going to do it.”
“We need more juice.” “We need more heat.”
Oh my God, you need better screenwriters.
This resurfaces at the end [spoiler: there’s a treasure!] when she sees the scrolls from the Library at Alexandria.
How she can tell that these are from Alexandria in a glance is … Unrealistic Plot Detail #941.
She may [spoiler!] end up with Gates, but her heart will always belong to parchment.
And not just to parchment. I think the thing I like most about this movie is that it’s a love letter to historical materials beyond the archives. There are gorgeous shots of the National Archives and the Library of Congress, yes, but also of Independence Hall and Trinity Church. Ben hooks Abigail with the gift of a 1789 campaign button:
Abigail: You know, I really couldn’t accept something like that normally, but [laughs awkwardly and delightedly] … I really want it.
Many of the clues are textual and literary, but many are material, and best of all, many are both: you need Benjamin Franklin’s special glasses to read a kind of map that takes you to downtown New York. (I also love that they’re doing most of the work on yellow lined note pads.)
I think it’s interesting how much attention this movie has continued to attract – from academics. Harvard (!) did a factcheck of it in 2016. Last summer, Historians at the Movies live-tweeted a group screening, and the thread is worth reading, primarily for Joanne Freeman’s reactions (and she’d know a thing or two about popularizing Revolutionary-era history) …
… and the collective concern for the artifacts.
It supplied a bridge between popular and academic cultures, I think in part because it taps into the collective obsession here with the Revolutionary era, but also because it takes something we love about what we do – the curiosity, the mystery, the sleuthing, the fitting the pieces together – and, well, puts it in a ballgown. Everyone in the movie, from Ben and Abigail to the villain to the FBI agent who’s secretly a Mason [Harvey Keitel], is not-so-secretly in love with the idea of an historical puzzle.
Disclosure: I happen to like this movie, despite or around the script and sexism and Revolution-worship and plot holes you can drive a truck through (how can Gates afford a diver’s watch and a Canada Goose jacket but not health insurance? How do they figure out the security system in the National Archives based on books that look like they were published in 1974?).
But it is great for teaching, at least in the United States, because almost every student has seen it and agrees with the premise (i.e., the Founding Fathers supplied wisdom for the ages) which you can then chip against. Plus, it has everything from eighteenth-century literary practices to the Little Ice Age. And you know what? I’d jump at the chance to be five stories beneath New York City for an afternoon. Or at a gala.
Claire Campbell is a professor of History and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she reconciles herself to being an expat by teaching Americans about Canada. She wishes she could wear more tiaras.