"National Treasure" tells the story of Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage), a self-proclaimed "treasure protector" in search of the treasure of the Knights Templar. He doesn't want the treasure for himself, but to keep it from falling into the hands of ruthless men. As such, he follows clues to the treasure's whereabouts left behind by America's forefathers.
Nicholas Cage stars in 'National Treasure,' which uses civil religion to entertain, according to reviewer Parnell. (Touchstone)
The movie's subtext, however, is essentially a presentation of civil religion in the form entertainment.
After Gates is told the story of the treasure by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer), he allows it to become the animating myth of his life. After Gates' partner, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), turns on him, the race is on for Gates to save the treasure from the newly minted bad guy.
The story stretches across the eastern seaboard cities of Washington, Philadelphia and New York as we learn of the Founding Fathers' allegiance to free masonry and clues they left in its symbols. The most significant clue, however, is on the back of The Declaration of Independence.
Gates' father, Patrick (Jon Voight), believes the treasure is nothing more than a story invented to keep the British occupied during the Revolutionary War. The tension between father and son thus grows with each step of the journey.
"National Treasure" wants to be like an Indiana Jones movie. There are thrills and spills, lots of action, and an undercurrent of religion. But instead of focusing on a traditional religion like Judaism or Christianity, we get a focus on civil religion and its relics of American history. "National Treasure" raises America's historical documents to the level of religious significance. Civil religion stands behind the movie's belief system.
But what makes "National Treasure" such a marginal movie is its cookie-cutter approach to characterization. Ian Howe and his group of thugs look like they came from central casting. There is no nuance—just a villain with a foreign accent who underscores the movie's belief that America is sacred. Only a foreigner can be the bad guy.
In a time when separation of church and state is blurred, "National Treasure" puts forth a homogenized version of the nature of faith in terms of our history.
Robert Bellah wrote that civil religion was "an institutional collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation." This movie takes those beliefs and molds them into a story that tries to entertain. In the end, however, it leaves one roped into an unwanted sales presentation.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG for action violence and some scary images.
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley
Cast: Benjamin Franklin Gates: Nicholas Cage; Abigail Chase: Diane Kruger; Ian Howe: Sean Bean; Patrick Gates: Jon Voight; Riley Poole: Justin Bartha; John Adams Gates: Christopher Plummer.
The movie's official Web site is here.