Summary: A heedless, fun, and solid piece of summer entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition.
Review: Cinema, like any other creative endeavor, slides on a scale between pretentious and pretense-less. ‘National Treasure’, a deliriously patriotic and good-humored entertainment, somehow falls on the pretense-less end without sacrificing its ambitious quasi-historical narrative. Disney assembled an excellent cast, with Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer, and they all seemed to have a blast hamming it up in this traditionalist matinée adventure. Disney’s major collaborations with producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been mostly quality throwback stories with nostalgic sensibilities. ‘National Treasure’ is not innovative, but it’s done well, as it hits all the popcorn flick story beats with heedless abandon. In this sense, it is without pretense, knowing exactly where it stands. On the other hand, central to the plot is a rather loose but very positive interpretation of American history that bubbles up into brief soliloquies. Despite A-list talent, such diversions could have easily crippled its decent B-movie plot, but because of the story’s philosophical nature, it works.
The best thing about ‘National Treasure’ is that it actually has a good central theme, that is, all history is family history. This is best illustrated in the excellent prologue when young Benjamin Gates sneaks into his grandfather’s attic in search of secrets. Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) finds him there and rewards his quest for knowledge by summing up the film’s McGuffin, setting up the narrative desire succinctly in the first few minutes. Above all, we learn that Ben’s lifelong desire to find the titular treasure comes from his love for his family. His knowledge of American history is merely that love extended. Also, by starting out with young Ben, we get a sense of time’s fluidity and how entangled past and present become over the film’s course. Extrapolating, the moral of the story is clear: History is integral to our identity, and such entanglement, as is the protagonist’s desire, should be ours as well.
As I am fond of maintaining, sound is half the picture, and composer Trevor Rabin (formerly of progressive rock outfit Yes) really sold the film. The score reinforces the scenario’s grand implications, deftly mixing epic brass with electronic and rock elements, a genre-bending feat indicative of Rabin’s roots. The themes of depth of history, love of family, and acceleration toward a technology-laden future all find a musical spouse in Rabin’s work.
One last note before I close: The awkward finale, which features not one, but two fake-out endings, actually has a thematic purpose, though subtle. The Freemasons, integral to the historical background, had only three levels or degrees in the period in which the titular treasure was supposedly hidden. Therefore, the three treasure rooms, and their corresponding character reactions, correlate to each degree. What seems excessive makes sense, with a little perspective.