CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Friday, April 13, 2007

The True Heir

There's been an idea going around. Someone, I'm not sure who, has been talking about how Pirates of the Caribbean is our generation's Raiders of the Lost Ark. My natural contrariness has not allowed me to believe this. Well, that and the fact that I didn't even like the first Pirates. But it wasn't until tonight that I found the true heir to the lofty throne of Indiana Jones.

National Treasure is the sort of movie we've been missing for a while. Of course, it was made in the wake of "The Da Vinci Code" (the book, not the movie), so it was hastily dismissed. However, there is a certain humanity in the film that is lacking in most enterprises of this sort.

This is most prevalent in a chase scene right after Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) steals the Declaration of Independence (it's really not worth explaining, but if you can go for the Holy Grail in a temple at the bottom of a canyon in Egypt, you should be able to go for this). The chase is centered on the fact that Gates' chief rival, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), has kidnapped Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), presumably with the Declaration. It is, of course, revealed later that the copy of the Declaration that Ian stole was a poster bought at the gift shop. This makes the chase that much more interesting in retrospect. In almost every movie of this sort, the people are never as important as the clue they have. People are kept alive solely for their ability to figure out the next clue. And yet here is a chase, not for the Declaration of Independence, but for Abigail.

Remember that the only reason Indiana Jones kept Marion around was because she had the the headpiece of the Staff of Ra. Ben Gates seems much more interested in the company he keeps than the information they have to give. This humanity extends even to Ian, who loses his closest friend in the last leg of this race. Ian is almost completely rational throughout most of the film. He seems simply driven by a lust for gold. But his hatred and greed reach a new level when seemingly confronted with a dead end. He has lost his friend, and the pain can be seen in Bean's performance, though nobody ever thought to look at it from his perspective.

National Treasure also seems to enjoy role reversals. Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) takes particular pleasure in the fact that for once in his life, he has the answer that Ben can't see. Ian, phenomenally rich at the start of the film, ends up poor and in jail while Ben goes from a moderate life to his own mansion. Probably the most obvious taste for reversals occurs, again, in the final major set piece. As decrepit stairs fall apart, we see Ben start to slip. He is saved by Abigail, but as soon as she pulls him up to safety, it is he who must save her.

What I found to be the most interesting role reversal came from a knowledge of film history. When Ian is finally nabbed outside of the Old North Church, he looks across the street to see Ben waiting in the shadowy doorway of an apartment. Thoughts of Harry Lime came rushing back to me, and I realized the greatest switch possible. With Ian, the criminal willing to do anything to survive, in Holly's shoes, and goody two shoes in the place of Harry. In The Third Man, Harry was ahead of every step Holly took. He knew exactly where to be at any given time. Ian is the same way, able to effectively follow Ben from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia to New York. Ben is able to solve every clue; he is book smart in a way that Ian never could. But he isn't street smart like Ian. He needs Riley to cover him in this regard. And so the tables turn at the end of the film. Ben is finally able to look on at Ian with the street smarts he needs. He has the knowledge, and he is still the good man. He doesn't need to lower himself to the level of a Harry Lime to feel the smug supremacy Harry felt when Holly first saw him. In a sense, the image of Ben in the doorway seems hopeful for humanity. We don't really need to be like Harry Lime to have his charm and street smarts.

National Treasure has a lot going for it. It is much more intelligent than most people give it credit for, and it is still extremely entertaining. It has great set pieces, thoroughly enjoys its movie-ness, and has a wonderfully charismatic leading man (I'm still convinced Nic Cage is one of the best actors of this generation, especially when starring in films like this). If that doesn't sound like Raiders of the Lost Ark, then I don't know what does. So forget Pirates of the Caribbean. National Treasure is where the pure entertainment lies.

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Blogger Carol said...

Well hello there, thinking person!
I am new to blogging, both writing and reading and am so delighted to have come across yours!

You know how to drive home a point and given I was already someone who appreciated NT on so many levels, not the least of which is at it was extremely entertainig, it's remarkable that you have dissected it so brilliantly. KUDOS! I'd like to comeback and read here some more...
Carol (Boggles the Mind)

8:01 AM


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