The grittier Hollywood gets, the more we need action films like National Treasure

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The grittier Hollywood gets, the more we need action films like National Treasure

“Nobody talks like that anymore.”

So says Benjamin Franklin Gates midway through 2004’s National Treasure. Gates is reading from the Declaration Of Independence—which he has just stolen—and he sighs at its eloquent invocation of the cost and importance of liberty. Later, after smuggling the document into Independence Hall in order to decode a secret map written on the back in invisible ink, he’ll shiver: “The last time this was here, it was being signed.”

National Treasure, you may recall, centers around a historian and “treasure protector” (Nicolas Cage) who seeks the resting place of various historical artifacts. While Gates is principally interested in the historical significance of the items, they also boast a value that is—to quote Bart Simpson—the good kind of priceless. Their immense monetary value inevitably attracts sordid types looking to keep the riches for themselves, and to find them first, Gates works his way through a series of Revolution or Civil War-era clues, alongside assistant Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and archivist/love interest Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger).

It may be more likely that you don’t recall any of that, as the film hasn’t had much lasting impact in the broader consciousness. It was popular enough to get a sequel—2007’s Book Of Secrets, also directed by Jon Turteltaub—but both films were more or less critically dismissed, and they seem to have been generally forgotten. If there’s a cult around them, it must be a lonely one. I consider myself a fan—at least in the way you’d like a big, dopey, enthusiastic puppy—but they’ve been growing in my estimation of late. The worse the world looks, the better the National Treasures do. When I go to the movies these days, the stories seem dominated by hate-filled bruisers, heroes who do little that’s heroic and star in movies that fetishize mass destruction and luxuriate in violence. Then when I turn on the news, I see politicians spout remarks of staggering bigotry, pledge to destroy the institutions they’re campaigning to lead, and belittle anything that smacks of complexity, charity, or righteousness.

Is it just me, or does nobody talk like Benjamin Gates anymore either?

I realize this is a lofty reaction to a Nicolas Cage franchise cynically created to straddle the Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code audiences. But there’s little in the films themselves that’s cynical. Or rather, the films are explicitly positioned against cynicism, and in a way I find immensely appealing in today’s political and cinematic environment. “You can’t live your life worrying about being cheesy,” Curtis Sittenfeld recently told The New York Times. National Treasure is one of the most plainly likable franchises in recent memory because it doesn’t worry about being cheesy. Gates thrills at solving puzzles and is giddy whenever he learns historical tidbits. He shivers with awe in Independence Hall, for Pete’s sake.

The smartest thing the National Treasure movies do is to put Gate’s kind of idealism in opposition to a country that is skeptical of, or losing faith in, its institutions. When Gates kidnaps the commander-in-chief to get a clue from a book that only presidents are allowed to read (if you haven’t caught on, these movies are supremely silly, though not nearly as self-serious as Dan Brown’s equally goofy Robert Langdon series) he pleads with the man to give him the secret book:

Because it will probably lead us to the discovery of the greatest Native American treasure of all time. A huge piece of culture lost. You can give that history back to its descendants. And because you’re the president of the United States, sir. Whether by innate character, or the oath you took to defend the Constitution, or the weight of history that falls upon you, I believe you to be an honorable man, sir.

The president (this is all Bruce Greenwood’s character is billed as) is skeptical. When he scoffs, “People don’t believe that stuff anymore,” Gates responds, “They want to believe it.”

I certainly do. For a long while I’ve felt that sincerity and idealism have been in short supply in Hollywood, sacrificed at the altar of gritty realism and Gen-X irony. When even Superman has become a glowering emblem of destruction, the aw-shucks altruism here is incredibly refreshing. (Other actors may have been tempted to temper Gates by playing him from a distance, but Cage, God bless him, does it with bald-faced sincerity.) This is a series where the hero is driven by a quest for knowledge and to ensure his family’s historic reputation, not for amassing power or wealth. Where the treasure hunters give away treasure, deciding it rightfully belongs to the people, and where a city made of gold is less exciting to them than anthropological writings. “This is going to give us incredible insight into pre-Columbian history!” goes one of the most delightfully dorky lines in action cinema.

Admittedly, the National Treasure movies have a tough time squaring their adulation of democratic institutions and the Founding Fathers with the more complex view we rightfully have of them now. At one point there’s a reference to one of George Washington’s slaves, but the film—not unexpectedly, but awkwardly—has no interest in the contradiction of how the founders fought for a freedom only extended to an elite few. To its discredit, the sequel tries to retcon Custer’s Last Stand to be about a search for gold, erasing the genocidal war waged against Native tribes (though the “give that history back to its descendants” line hints at reparations). Still, the gentle affection the films have for history is leagues more appealing than the rah-rah jingoism that characterizes Michael Bay movies, and Treasure’s central point—that democratic institutions are good, and that positions of power should be filled by honorable people working in the public interest—is hard to argue with.

But even outside the ideology, the National Treasures are refreshing just as action movies. There’s a lightness to them that’s sorely missed in an age when unrelenting darkness is the default; if anything, their jokes and banter are so foregrounded that the movies are more easily classified as comedies with action than the other way around. While it would be too much to say that they’re parodies of globetrotting yarns, they poke fun at their absurdity—again, something that’s more than welcome when so many inane stories insist on their seriousness. When Gates performs my favorite action-movie cliché—the tuxedo hidden under the wetsuit—he dryly notes, “maybe one day I’ll wear this to a party I’m actually invited to.” Perhaps I’m just inordinately susceptible to the comedic stylings of Justin Bartha, but his Riley Poole is comic relief done right, poking at such genre requirements as labored exposition and the hero who is always right. (“Is this how you feel all the time?” he asks when finally he has an insight the boss doesn’t.).

This kind of playfulness is particularly effective in the flirty relationship between Gates and Chase, a rare plausible action-movie romance (especially compared to the loveless bond between the current Clark Kent and Lois Lane). The first movie ends with Chase giving Gates a map she’s made, followed by his chasing after her. The content is never revealed—a map to their bedroom? Of her body?—but it’s a charming note to go out on, so much so that I’d be hard-pressed to name many modern romantic comedies with equivalent affection, let alone action movies. And while the sequel gives them tedious relationship problems, it also has Helen Mirren and Jon Voight (as Gates’ divorced parents) in a bickering battle-of-the-sexes routine. (Mirren credits the start of their relationship to “excitement and tequila,” and reopens their breakup argument with the delightfully absurd line, “I was not the one who left the toothbrushes in Marrakech!”) I’ll admit that the ridiculously stacked cast (which also includes Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer, and Ed Harris) is not called on for the depths they’ve reached elsewhere, but the sight of Mirren and Voight solving their relationship woes by swinging over a gorge is worth its weight in historical gold.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with movie violence or dark themes in principle, but the fact that the National Treasures are actually and actively family-friendly is commendable when so many action movies shrug off collateral damage that numbers in the millions. (Captain America is as idealistic as Gates, but those qualities are offset by the widespread destruction that seems to follow him.) There are a couple of deaths scattered across this series, but they’re incidental and offscreen: Someone falls into a chasm; someone else sacrifices himself and drowns. In what’s somehow a quaint throwback, the first movie ends with the bad guy getting outsmarted and arrested, not outfought and killed. I walked out of 2012, Godzilla, and especially Batman V Superman depressed by the scale of the carnage I was meant to enjoy; compared to those, a National Treasure chase scene that pauses for a dog to lick the camera lens is corny in the best possible way. What a nice change of pace to have a hero who doesn’t carry a gun or walk stoically away from explosions, whose advantage comes from intelligence and cunning, not brute force. If most action movies seem to take their cues from the school jock, these take theirs from the class nerd.

National Treasure’s qualities have been particularly on my mind ever since Disney announced that it would be making a fifth Indiana Jones movie. I can’t help but think that Indiana Jones is not the hero we need right now. He may share a lot of characteristics with Gates (whose line, “this belongs to the world” is a blatant rip-off of Jones’ “it belongs in a museum”), but idealism isn’t one of them. Harrison Ford’s gruff performance is deservedly iconic, but Gates’ inability to be a badass makes him more fun to root for.

Action cinema has plenty of cynical and sarcastic heroes right now, and more than enough strong silent types, but gentle goodness is in perilously short supply. We don’t need another antihero. What we could use is someone who thinks, acts, and talks like Benjamin Gates.