<I>Declaration</I> code: Founding Fathers left a riddle


If your kids won't study history, take them to see National Treasure. It may not make them appreciate history, but it will show them there are worse things they could be doing than studying it.

Actually, National Treasure feels like an educational videogame that was adapted into a movie for sales synergy. A PG-rated Disney release, it's pretty lightweight for adults (think a third-rate Indiana Jones) and will make kids suspicious that someone's trying to slip them some lessons in a candy coating.

The first two sequences set up the story with more dialogue than some entire films contain, especially Jerry Bruckheimer films. When the talking stops, a ship hundreds of years old (buried in ice near the Arctic Circle) is blown up. (Oh, that Jerry Bruckheimer.)

First, in 1974, a grandfather (Christopher Plummer) gives a lesson to young Benjamin Franklin Gates, who will grow up to be Nicolas Cage. It involves an ancient treasure that had been lost for a millennium, but was found by the Knights Templar a thousand years ago and later brought to the New World and hidden so the British wouldn't get it.

In 1832, a Gates ancestor was given a clue to the treasure by the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence before he died. What Ben's father (Jon Voight) describes as "six generations of fools" have been looking for it ever since. Voight quit after 20 years and encourages his son to stop, saying each clue only leads to another clue, but there is no treasure.

That doesn't stop Ben, 30 years later, from thawing out that old boat, where he finds a Meerschaum pipe with a riddle inscribed in its stem. He interprets this– at great length– to say there's a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. When Ben's financier/partner, Ian (Sean Bean), demands they steal the ancient document Ben refuses, and they part company.

Ben and his sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha, a young Crispin Glover) head for Washington to warn the FBI and Homeland Security that the Declaration is about to be stolen. They won't listen to him, so he goes to the National Archives and tries to persuade Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). She's no more receptive than the others, but she's prettier. (This doesn't seem to matter much to the asexual Riley, who may have a crush on Ben.)

So Ben and Riley steal the document before Ian and his thugs can, and the chase is on. Dr. Chase goes along to protect the document. The trail leads to Philadelphia, where there's another clue at Independence Hall, then to New York and maybe Boston. It's like Cellular for historians, but slower paced.

While it's easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, it's not clear what the good guys intend to do with the treasure if they find it; but we know they'll do the right thing– whatever it is– in the end.

For a Bruckheimer action movie, National Treasure– perhaps hampered by the PG rating– is short on memorable action sequences. There's enough that the picture's pulse never stops, but it has a surprisingly slow count.

Cage is in his mildly obnoxious, doing-it-for-the-money mode. With the paycheck he got, who needs treasure? The other actors do what's expected of them– or less. The document representing the Declaration endures an amazing amount of abuse, being rolled and unrolled countless times, soaked in lemon juice (to read the invisible ink), and handled far more than it's been for centuries– kinda like the way the Republicans treat the Constitution.

There's probably an intrinsic patriotic appeal to building a story around national monuments and historical documents, so think of your ticket purchase as an act of solidarity with Bruckheimer Nation.