The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and various other documents back in the 18th century are often called the "founding fathers" of the United States of America. But it has also been argued that the United States did not really come into its own as a country until the 19th century, when it endured the horrors of the Civil War; it was this conflict, rather than the Revolution, which was dubbed "The Birth of a Nation" by legendary silent film director D.W. Griffith.
A similar view is expressed early on by Nicolas Cage's character, Benjamin Gates, in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the sequel to the most successful movie Cage has ever made. And it makes sense that this budding series should leap from a story about George Washington and all his friends to a brand new mystery that takes the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as its starting point. Washington led thirteen colonies in breaking away from the British homeland, whereas Lincoln held on to those states that tried to break away from the resulting republic—and these films, in which our heroes are always breaking into places and stealing things but generally doing so for the good of the country, capture something of that fine balancing act between subverting authority and respecting it at the same time.
The motives of Benjamin Gates are not so pure this time, though. In the first film, he was a treasure hunter who was motivated as much by patriotism—the need to protect national relics—as by the need to prove that the crazy story handed down to him by his grandfather was true. This time, however, the outrageous things he does are primarily motivated by a desire to defend the honor of his great-great-grandfather—and while his quest does take him to bigger and better things, that initial impulse is not so easy to justify. A matter of national security, it isn't.
When last we saw Benjamin, he and his new girlfriend, National Archives executive Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), had found the treasure of the Knights Templar and used it to buy a swanky new mansion. But as the second film begins, Benjamin and Abigail have had a falling out, and she has kicked him out of the house ("You can have the Boston Tea tables," says Benjamin as they divide the furniture), so now he lives again with his once-skeptical father Patrick (Jon Voight). When we first see them, Benjamin and Patrick are giving a lecture on the diary of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and the 18 pages that are mysteriously missing from it. But no sooner have they raised the subject, than a man named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) stands up and reveals that he has one of the missing pages in his hands—and it seems to implicate Benjamin's great-great-grandfather in the assassination.
Benjamin refuses to believe that his ancestor had anything to do with the conspiracy against Lincoln, and so he sets out to prove the man's innocence. And this, in turn, requires him to visit Paris, sneak into Buckingham Palace, snoop around the Oval Office, and visit various other places in search of real-life artifacts that would be quite fascinating in their own right even if they weren't hiding secrets. And along the way, Benjamin again teams up not only with computer-whiz sidekick Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and his estranged girlfriend Abigail, who can never resist a good mystery, but he also gets his mother, a British expert in Native American history named Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), to help out—and since she left his father three decades earlier, that means there are two bickering, separated couples on this journey.
While the National Treasure films take enormous liberties with the facts, one of the delightful things about them is the way they pepper lots of true historical details into the script—so this review won't get into too many specifics. Let's just say you will probably want to spend some time with Wikipedia after watching this film, and you may never look at famous monuments and presidential furniture in quite the same way again. But just for the record, the John Wilkes Booth diary really does exist, and it really is missing 18 pages—just as Richard Nixon's infamous Watergate tape, which does not come up in this film, is missing 18 minutes. Coincidence?
Of course, to some people, there are no coincidences, and here is the one aspect of these films that gives me pause. We live in a time when many people believe in some pretty outrageous conspiracy theories, and films like these have fun with that mindset but may also reinforce it, in a way. The "Book of Secrets" alluded to in the movie's title turns out to be a scrapbook that is passed on from one president to another, and no one else is allowed to read it—and according to FBI agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel), this book contains information on the John F. Kennedy assassination and various other alleged conspiracies. In an age of increasingly vocal so-called 9/11 "truthers," is this an attitude that ought to be encouraged?
Taken purely as entertainment, however, National Treasure: Book of Secrets is a reasonably enjoyable flick. History-movie buffs may get a kick out of seeing so many actors who have played real-life leaders in one movie: Mirren, so recently praised for her performance as Elizabeth II in The Queen, is back as another Brit in a film where other characters—not hers, alas—infiltrate Buckingham Palace; Voight, who rose from his wheelchair as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor, has a scene in this film where he talks about FDR wanting to keep his wheelchair hidden; and Bruce Greenwood, who played Kennedy in Thirteen Days, is back as "The President."
Animation buffs may also get a kick out of an action sequence inspired by the Oscar-winning short film Balance, and fans of The Abyss may get a kick out of seeing Ed Harris deal with flooding water once again. However, as the new film's villain, Harris brings a seriousness or intensity to the proceedings that makes this film a little heavier than its predecessor (which featured Sean Bean as the bad guy).
The new film also features a sequence in which Benjamin is busy looking where he shouldn't be looking for something he shouldn't be looking for, and Abigail—who, remember, has broken up with Benjamin romantically, even if she can't resist joining him on another treasure hunt—distracts another man by striking some seductive poses and ultimately kissing him. (And since Benjamin has seen her bring this man home after a date before, he does have reason to be jealous.)
While the new movie is rated PG, just like its predecessor, and while the relationship issues are ultimately resolved in a way that no one could complain about, elements like these make the sequel slightly edgier than the film that came before it. But compared to a lot of other action movies, this one is still pretty safe—the hero does not carry a gun, for one thing—and its imaginative use of the past is bound to stimulate interest in American history, and who can complain with that?Discussion starters
- How would you react if you found out if one of your ancestors might have been involved in a violent conspiracy? Would you feel obliged to clear his name, or to do something that would regain the family honor? Is Benjamin Gates justified in what he does to restore his great-great-grandfather's honor?
- How far back in one's family tree should one go before such things don't really matter any more? Do Bible passages about families being punished or rewarded unto the fourth generation (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18; 2 Kings 10:30) have any bearing here? What about other passages that say children should not be punished for the sins of their parents (Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Chronicles 25:4 )?
- How important is family? Note how both Benjamin Gates and Mitch Wilkinson talk about their respective families. Do they have something in common? Compare and contrast the ways that they deal with their respective families' reputations.
- Mitch says, "A man only has one lifetime. But history can remember you forever." How important is history? How important is reputation, after you die? Do the opinions of people count for anything? If so, how much?
- When Benjamin talks about the things that the President is supposed to stand for, the President replies, "Gates, people don't believe that stuff any more," and Gates replies, "They want to believe it." What people do you look up to? Do you look up to anybody simply because he or she is in a position of power? How much faith should we put in such institutions? Why or why not?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
National Treasure: Book of Secrets is rated PG for some violence and action, including car chases and narrow escapes from perilous situations, much of it defused by humor (though at least one death takes place off-screen). A woman kicks her boyfriend out of the house and helps him later on by distracting another man, who she has been dating, with a series of "accidentally" seductive poses that eventually lead to a kiss. There is also the occasional "Oh my god" or similar expression.
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