While the millions of book readers wondering who was going to play Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) in Ron Howard's next movie did not approach the passionate debate over who should play Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, there is no doubt that "National Treasure" is an attempt to capitalize on the great interest in a best-selling novel about unraveling arcane clues left by famous people in the same way that "Jezebel" got to the silver screen with a movie about the ante-bellum South before "GWTW." The question is whether "National Treasure" is just an appetizer to whet our appetite for next year's version of Dan Brown's novel or if this will turn our stomach to the whole idea of films where only the hero can decipher the clues and solve the mystery.
The key is not to take this film seriously because it does not. After all, there is not a secret society that is dodging the steps of Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage), but a villain, Ian Howe (Sean Bean) who wants the treasure because it is worth billions of dollars. Yes, there is a pretty blonde with a foreign accent (Diane Kruger) to provide informative, help and a love interest for the hero, but there is also a nerd (Justin Bartha) for comic relief and hard science. Ultimately, "National Treasure" is more like an adventure computer game, where you around a collect strange objects and visit interesting places while solving puzzles that eventually get you to whatever you are looking for, which suggests that a younger audience that does not often get away from their computer screens long enough to read an actual novel will enjoy this film more.
Gates is the latest in a line of family members named for the Founding Fathers and committed to the search for a fabled ancient treasure originally discovered under King Solomon's Temple moved from Jerusalem by the Knights Templar and brought by Free Masons to the New World where it was secreted away by those same Founding Fathers. Having discovered the meaning of the first clue given to him by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer), Ben Gates figures that the next is found on the back of the Declaration of Independence, written in invisible ink. Gates knows this, Howe knows this, and the race is on to beg, borrow or steal the most important piece of parchment in the United States and figure out the next clue in the puzzle.
On the plus side the film can be seen, as one kid observes in the alternative ending, as an attempt to make the viewers learn something about American history, which is a laudable if secondary goal in and of itself. But basically this is a caper film, which means you do not have to try and figure out the clues because the screenplay gives Gates just enough time to figure it out while the rest of us try to follow along. Otherwise, what this 2004 film from director Jon Turteltaub ("Phenomenon," "Instinct") says to us is that the Founding Fathers must not have cared as much about establishing a new nation if they sat on all that money instead of using it to buy weapons to gain independence or pay the soldiers in the Continental Army who were freezing to death at Valley Forge. Of course, then there would be no treasure to hunt in this movie.
They always said that if Ben Franklin had written the Declaration of Independence rather than Thomas Jefferson he would have put a joke in it, so perhaps it is not surprising that he is the merry prankster behind a lot of the code breaking and puzzle solving in this film. Fortunately the codes and puzzles on the DVD special features that get you to bonus sections and the trivia track for the film are a lot easier to solve. Why the treasure is lost makes no sense since the colonists did win the American Revolution and the signers of the Declaration were not slaughtered like the Knights Templar. So the desperate situation told reached in the story Gates is told by his grandfather would not have been reached. Of course, that would take the wind out of this movie and we just cannot have that. Instead we move along so that we get to the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" big finale. "National Treasure" is not anywhere near that good of a ride, but it is solid escapist fare with touches of American history.
At least this film will not inspire anyone to wonder if the story is true and we will be spared dozens of books arguing out the fact and fiction of the tale. Then again, the Declaration of Independence DOES have a back...