The Olympics and Nic Cage (a National Treasure post)
Look, I’m not going to pretend that National Treasure, the 2004 movie in which Nic Cage steals the Declaration of Independence because it has an invisible treasure map on the back, isn’t stupid. Of course it is. The very idea of a series of clues that could be found centuries after their creation is laughable, as is the notion that a huge wooden staircase and elevator system wouldn’t have rotted through after 200 years under the streets of New York. I’m simply saying I do not care. I love National Treasure and everything it represents.
On the surface, it’s just a heist film. Take a bit of The DaVinci Code, sprinkle in some Raiders of the Lost Ark, add Benjamin Franklin and you’ve got National Treasure. The stakes are high enough to provide tension but not so high that it ever stops being a romp. Everyone in the cast is affable and doing the legwork to sell this preposterous premise. Why is this German woman obsessed with American history? Don’t worry about it. It’s all harmless and entertaining.
And I love all of that. Stick puzzles and/or riddles in your film and I will watch it many, many times, regardless of whether it’s any good or not. (Sidebar: It almost never is.) But beyond that, the earnestness of the characters appeals to me. Ben Gates (Nic Cage) wants to steal the Declaration to find the treasure, sure, but mostly because he believes the other guy trying to steal it, Ian, will almost certainly destroy it in trying to get the treasure map off the back of it, and he’s willing to go to prison to prevent that. This guy loves this piece of paper — or more accurately what it represents — so much he’s willing to risk his life and freedom to save it. There’s a nobility to that kind of devotion, or at least the fictionalized version of it.
The kind of mental arithmetic necessary to enjoy National Treasure is very similar to what has to be done in order to enjoy the Olympics in a modern context. The Olympics are a hot mess of corruption, destruction, and exploitation — but they’re also a legit celebration of people’s dedication to an ideal. Most of the athletes who compete will never get anywhere near the podium or a Wheaties box, and yet they still put in the work to get there. Their belief that effort matters regardless of the eventual result is beautiful. Watch the Olympics with an informed and cynical eye, and you’ll see the bullshit and commercialism oozing out from every possible location; it’s impossible not to. If you want to be there for the moment an athlete does more than they ever thought they could — or does exactly what they knew they could — you have to tune all of that other stuff out.
And so it is with National Treasure. Forget what’s passing as American patriotism these days; for all the stuff the Founding Fathers did that was genuinely great, they were also pretty shitty human beings. (Yes, even taking into consideration what was considered socially acceptable behavior for men of their time, they did a lot of shitty stuff.) That is incontrovertible. And yet so is the immensity of what they achieved. This is the duality that lies at the heart of Hamilton, too. Scrappy, brilliant immigrant, yes, philandering slave owner…also, yes. American history is equal parts ugly and admirable.
The composition and signing of the Declaration of Independence represent a moment of not just history but dramatic history. Brave, messy, terrifying history that, as a young kid from Philadelphia, I heard about every single blessed year in school until I’d heard it so much it stopped actually meaning anything to me. When I pause to see it all through the eyes of Benjamin Franklin Gates, though, I see it for the remarkable thing it is. There’s a moment in the film when Gates, having successfully stolen the Declaration and taken it to Independence Hall with his pals, has a quick shudder as he realizes the last time that document was in that building was when it was being signed. Imagine holding the very thing that has, in ways big and small, informed life as you know it in the place where it attained that power. That’s…I mean, for real, that’s cool. That’s worthy of taking a beat. That’s awe-inspiring
National Treasure is a hoot of a film that makes the love of an idea into the key that unlocks a treasure. Ben and Abby don’t just know American history, they adore it. They memorize it the way kids obsess over Pokemon, and that’s what allows them to win the day. The version of the thing they adore, this collection of men building a nation, isn’t as glossy as the movie makes it out to be…but it feels good to pretend that it is, if only for a minute.