Hear Me Out: National Treasure

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Hear Me Out: National Treasure

Camp is a sensibility that is notoriously hard to put into words—just look at the vast array of outfits worn at the 2019 camp-themed Met Gala, or (more helpfully) “Notes on ‘Camp,'” Susan Sontag’s listicle-style essay that requires more than 50 entries to lay down the bare foundation for what may or may not be considered camp. What makes something camp? Its seriousness, its sincerity, its lack thereof? Difficult to say. As a result, the campiness of any given object, person or media is often subject to debate; it’s simply hard to declare something camp with any real certainty, due to how malleable and subjective the camp sensibility often feels. But, in my opinion, the 2004 masterpiece National Treasure does not have that problem. I mean, an action-adventure flick starring a characteristically intense Nicolas Cage who gets genuinely emotional when thinking about the Founding Fathers while he’s on the lam for stealing the Declaration of Independence? A patently ridiculous blockbuster that, despite being seemingly aware of its incomprehensible premise, treats itself with the seriousness of Ocean’s Eleven, the gung-ho earnestness of School of Rock, and the awed patriotism of a historical reenactment groupie who travels the country seeking the best fake Paul Revere? Now that is camp.

One particularly notable feature of successful camp, according to Sontag, is that “even when it reveals self-parody, [it] reeks of self-love.” That’s precisely the case with National Treasure: It’s hard to know what to make of it, or what it’s even trying to be—but God, is it trying. Director Jon Turteltaub spent seven years working on it, because of how hard it was “to get [it] right.” Apparently, “the first draft was a much sillier movie, and we tried to add a lot more reality and a lot more history into it.” In other words, what we got is the “serious,” believable version of National Treasure.

Just think on that for a second.

Even if National Treasure were originally conceived in jest, Turteltaub and the team behind the movie spent years honing it into a film intended to “celebrate these aspects of American history,” a film they wanted “to look real, not fake.” (Accordingly, Turteltaub gets very frustrated with bad reviews that criticize the film’s ahistoricism and inauthenticity, claims he vehemently denies—although a Harvard fact-check of the film betrays quite a few inaccuracies.) This amount of care doesn’t make sense, considering the ridiculous final product. But at the same time, it does: How else could something as knowingly ludicrous as National Treasure feel so passionate, so lovingly crafted? I don’t think anyone on the film thought what they were making was high art, but I’d bet money that quite a few viewed it as something of a peer to Indiana Jones, or as a genuine love letter to America and its apparently flawless history (I don’t think the film ever mentions slavery, which … I mean, yeah). It’s utterly naïve, both its romanticized depiction of America and its blind certainty that the movie succeeds as a patriotic ode and/or a high-stakes adventure flick, but that’s why it’s brilliant. Why it’s camp.

And like any good camp, it’s proven itself to be endlessly memeable. By now, Nicolas Cage’s solemn vow to steal the Declaration of Independence has been embedded deep into cultural and memetic history—so much so that it’s easy to forget that even once the historic document is grasped within Nic’s hand, there’s still an hour and a half left of the movie to go. National Treasure is the gift that keeps on giving, the dayenu of films: If it merely centered around one man’s obsessive insistence that every treasure of the ancient world was hidden by generations of patriotic Freemasons, it would have been enough. If said man were named, I kid you not, Benjamin Franklin Gates (a name that is pure camp in and of itself for its unabashed shoehorning of patriotism), and was played with diehard intensity by Nic Cage, that would have been enough. If Gates were to immediately conjecture, after spreading his blood on a pipe for five seconds, that an invisible treasure map was written on the back of the Declaration of Independence, that would have been enough. If Sean Bean’s shaggy-haired Ian Howe (who you know immediately is the movie’s villain because Bean is British and this is America, goddammit!) was to barely escape an exploding colonial-era American vessel inexplicably trapped in the annals of the Arctic in order to make his way to Washington, D.C. to steal the nation’s founding text—what, like it’s hard?—that would have been enough. If Gates (who was also almost blown up on that ship) was so horrified by the Brit’s anti-American scheme to steal the Declaration of Independence that he decides the only rational course of action would be for him to steal the Declaration of Independence first (but like, patriotically), that would have been enough. But nothing is ever enough for National Treasure. It just keeps barreling forward, full speed ahead. And, for reference, everything listed here happens before we’ve even breached the 20-minute mark.

Unlike other so-bad-it’s-good movies (a la The Room), National Treasure surely knows how ludicrous its premise is; how could it not? It’s like a parody of a movie that doesn’t even exist, or that’s what it would feel like, if the film itself weren’t wholly absent of any of the tell-tale traces of irony that usually propel such a satire. The movie exists in some strange realm of suspended disbelief where stealing the Declaration of Independence in order to find a clue to a clue to a clue to a treasure trove filled with scrolls from the Library of Alexandria is just, like, a thing that might happen. It is abject frivolity treated with genuine seriousness. But at the same time, the obvious hang-ups most of us would focus on if we were writing this movie—for instance, that it might be difficult to steal the Declaration of Independence, or that squeezing citric juices all over famous historical documents might have repercussions, or that falling around 800 feet off the Intrepid into the Hudson River might result in physical injuries of some sort—are resolved within minutes, or are never presented as issues at all. If I were writing the film and, for some reason, similarly taking the premise at face value, these are all concerns I would emphasize, but National Treasure flippantly dismisses what would otherwise be serious. But to put it in Sontag’s words, that’s what camp is all about: being “serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

One would be remiss, of course, to call this movie a camp masterpiece without paying homage to camp master Cage, who plays Benjamin Franklin Gates with the same devotion and intensity as Jeremy Strong played Kendall Roy (albeit not with the same success). Cage has given interviews attesting to how seriously he took the film, despite knowing how bizarre its central concept was. He and his castmates “played it as dramatic actors” rather than jesters in a farce. He even discussed some of his interpretations of his character, speaking at length about how Ben Gates being knighted (as, yes, a Knight of the Templar) at a young age by his grandfather made him believe, “in a chivalrous way, that everything he is, is on account of his ancestors. They’re not dead to him. They’re still there with him and he’s honoring them.” How Cage gleans this insight from a man who patriotically pours lemon juice on the Declaration of Independence on his father’s living room table before sexily exhaling hot air onto it alongside his love interest, I’ll never know, but that’s what makes him so good at camp roles: As Sontag wrote, “the essential element [of camp] is seriousness, a seriousness that fails…[and] has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” That’s what Cage does with Gates, and that’s where National Treasure excels despite itself, in its “relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, [it is] more extreme and irresponsible in [its] fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

There’s a heart to National Treasure that really has no reason to be there; it is a film that genuinely loves itself and its characters, against all odds. There are moments that are evidently meant to land as tearjerkers—like when Cage’s estranged relationship with his non-believer father (“non-believer” meaning he is skeptical that, generations ago, their Freemason ancestors stockpiled every treasure in the world and left clues for Benjamin Franklin Gates to find) comes to a head; when Ben finally grows disheartened at the fruitlessness of his search and his father determinedly picks up the mantle in his stead. Similarly sentimental is Gates’ flirtation-turned-relationship with Diane Kruger’s Dr. Abigail Chase, Director of the National Archives. Their relationship is perhaps one of the least believable aspects of this utterly unbelievable film (he thieves a document that’s her job to protect, kind of kidnaps her, negs her for 40 minutes with 1950s-style “why won’t this gosh dang woman shut her trap” sexism, tells her point-blank he would have let her fall to certain death in order to save the Declaration, and gets the girl anyways?), but National Treasure sure as hell believes it. We’re actually meant to like them together, to buy it. I don’t, but the film certainly does.

The only exception is found in sidekick Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), who exists for the sole purpose of being the nasally, nerdy-yet-dumb funnyman that every early 2000s movie was legally obligated to feature, but he’s also part of what makes National Treasure feel “serious”: any movie determinedly trying to make it as a big action blockbuster in 2004, would, again, contractually require at least one Riley archetype. He’s the attempted humor in the movie—and I say attempted not because National Treasure isn’t funny, but because the reason it’s funny is definitely not Riley’s classic sidekick wisecracks (“Why can’t they just say, ‘go to this place, and here is the treasure; spend it wisely?'” “Okay! Who wants to go down the creepy tunnel inside the tomb first?”).

National Treasure is intended to be comedic in nature, hence Riley’s existence, but every joke it intentionally makes is far less funny than the jokes it doesn’t—and it’s precisely the fact that it doesn’t make them that makes the film so funny. We’re supposed to watch Nic Cage hushedly whisper a memorized line from the Declaration of Independence, which shows on the screen with each spoken line highlighted and scrolling across the screen like a karaoke video, a symphony of cellos bellowing dramatically underneath. We’re supposed to watch him softly shake his head afterward and say with a genuine undercurrent of grief, “People don’t talk that way anymore…” and we’re not supposed to laugh? No; we’re supposed to join him in his overflowing patriotic wonder, and that’s even funnier.

You can tell the film was not intending this as a laugh line, especially because the joke the movie does choose to make at that moment is entirely unrelated to what actually made it funny; instead, it’s a crack at Riley’s lack of appreciation (“Beautiful, huh? … No idea what you just said”), which Benjamin Franklin Gates promptly rectifies with a SparkNotes summary of the quote. Moments later, Gates uses said quote as his justification for stealing the Declaration of Independence (because it is the responsibility of those with the ability to take action to fight against wrongdoing, so the Declaration heist is morally defensible by the words of the Founding Fathers themselves). That oft-memed declaration of intent to steal the Declaration is not spoken with the gravitas and defiance one might expect from seeing it online, but with quiet admiration, tears practically brimming in Cage’s eyes. It’s mind-boggling in its sincerity, in its excess. The whole movie is. I mean practically every single extra in every single shot of every single city scene dons bright red, white, and blue. I’m not kidding. There is just a sea of patriotism behind our protagonists at any given moment, not noticeable enough that it’s jarring, but the kind of thing you see mentioned in a Letterboxd comment and suddenly can’t stop seeing. It’s bizarre, unnecessary, baffling—and so deeply fitting. That’s what National Treasure’s camp is rooted in: excessive dedication and dedication to excess.

Is National Treasure a good movie? God, no. But it is a great one. It’s a national treasure in and of itself, a snapshot of the post-2001 patriotic zeal wrapped up in every trope that plagued the big screen around the turn of the century. It’s a relic of a time that doesn’t quite exist but a feeling that, for some, did—a feeling that is perhaps very distant from most of us now, but the film is no less campy for it. In fact, “many of the objects prized by camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date,” Sontag writes, because “time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the camp sensibility.” Now 20 years after the film’s release, it is entirely impossible to imagine it being made today: not just for its erasure of American atrocities or for its casual, ha-ha-funny sexism, and not even because it’s just flat-out ridiculous, but because its earnest idealism feels bizarre and alien from the comfortable home we’ve made in cynicism. It’s not that National Treasure unexpectedly brings us further away from our modern pessimism—it does not—but that it feels so ridiculous it lands somewhere completely outside of the spectrum. It’s not believable as an entirely genuine, idealistic creed (there’s too much bizarre artifice and blatant ridiculousness), nor is it believable as an intentionally excessive, cynical self-parody (there’s far too little sardonic irony or even self-awareness); it’s something else entirely. It’s pure camp.

Casey Epstein-Gross is a New York based writer and critic whose work can be read in Paste, Observer, The A.V. Club, and other publications. She can typically be found subjecting innocent bystanders to rambling, long-winded monologues about television, film, music, politics, or any one of her strongly held opinions on bizarrely irrelevant topics. Follow her on Twitter or email her at [email protected].

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