Gather round, history buffs and hooligans; it’s time to celebrate one of the greatest additions to the cinematic canon of the United States.
Fifteen years ago, a flat-affect treasure hunter portrayed by Hollywood legend Nicolas Cage graced the silver screen with a whirlwind two hours and eleven minutes of patriotism and absolutely true history. The Disney vehicle National Treasure (2004, dir. Jon Turteltaub) didn’t sell any amusement park rides, but it did spark an interest in the National Archives so strong that it is hosting a screening of the film this month to honor its legacy.
A great tragedy of U.S. intelligentsia is its underwhelmed reaction to this intrepid film. Stephen Holden called it a “piece of flotsam” that is “inconsequential” for the New York Times; Roger Ebert gave National Treasure the absolute honor of being “so silly that the Monty Python version could use the same screenplay, line for line,” and in an act of cinematic aggression and outright lying, William Thomas claimed it is “a hokey, only vaguely fun romp” for Empire. Our collective responsibility is saved only by Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has nearly a million user reviews.
Critics be damned, National Treasure is unparalleled in its cultural impact. When you sit down to watch this film, you’re going to learn something. Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) has to “steal the Declaration of Independence” (this line occurs verbatim in the film six times; its derivatives are too numerous to tally) and teach us a history lesson or twelve along the way.
Nine writers spent five years lovingly crafting this seamless plot, which doesn’t care about questions like “What kind of password is ‘Valley Forge’ for a high security government facility?” or “Why does Ben Gates’ father keep a large bowl of lemons in his fridge?” or “Could they really not come up with a smaller ‘secret’ earpiece in 2004?” Instead, the story twists and thrills and, of course, falls in love.
A plot recap is obviously unnecessary, as the intricacies of this masterpiece are as innate to the human memory as the exchange of oxygen, but consider this a highlight reel. Gates finds a centuries-lost arctic ship in a few minutes with the help of adorkable tech bro Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), then clears away enough snow to see the body of the ship from a distance within a few more movie seconds. Inside the boat’s dusty but generally unbothered cabin, Gates almost immediately finds and deciphers the next clue (the clue that brought them to the ship, “the secret lies with Charlotte,” took 172 years to solve). Gates copies a message in his own blood and announces that the treasure map is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence, which Ian Howe (Sean Bean) immediately decides to steal. The rest is history (literally!).
Gates and Poole pick up a clever blonde, Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), along the way, and within a few short shenanigans Chase—whose sole job is protecting the National Archives, the crown gem of which is the Declaration of Independence—swaps teams from “I must protect the Declaration from you, a thief” to “I must protect the Declaration and you, a thief.”
In quintessential heterosexual fashion, Chase and Gates end up kissing in a tunnel that opens behind a very dead Freemason’s casket and leads to the greatest treasure the world has ever seen. (Shortly thereafter, Gates almost leaves Chase to plummet to her death in order to save the Declaration. Chase later tells him not to worry about it, as she would have done the same. Ah, patriotism.)
It should be noted that they steal the Declaration in Washington, D.C., find several clues in Philadelphia, then finally locate the treasure in New York. While at least one night passes, by no indication does any character sleep during the course of the film, which explains a lot.
That treasure, by the way, is a gigantic catacomb—one apparently never detected while building the New York subway system—of artifacts from millennia of colonization, a testament to the ability of every ruling nation since the dawn of civilization to pillage, plunder, and horde unimaginable wealth for no reason at all. It includes sarcophagi, suits of armor, and a stack of scrolls that Chase—curator of the United States’ National Archives, as we remember—immediately and correctly identifies as books from the Library of Alexandria.
This film is perfect.
We owe much of our completely accurate and unbiased knowledge of U.S. history to National Treasure and later to its sequel film, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. (A third film has been rumored for more than a decade; if and when it releases, the trilogy will enter the annals as a series with absolute continuity and unquestionable academic utility.) Here’s to fifteen more years.