Movie Review - National Treasure

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Jon Turteltaub
Walt Disney Pictures
for action violence and some scary images.

National Treasure is one of those movies that’s great because it has a lot of intriguing American and world history… and not so great, because a lot of the history isn’t true. Great because it takes an impossible, illegal, but exciting task (i.e., stealing the Declaration of Independence) and tries to work it into the film in such a way that it becomes both possible and legal… and yet it’s not so great, because the attempt pretty much failed on that last point. It’s hard to separate the pros and the cons. You can’t just set half the movie on one side of the scale, half the movie on the other side of the scale, and see which side comes out on top. This is one of those movies you have to dissect first… and it’s not one of those movies that’s set up to make dissection easy. That’s what reviews like this are for.

Of course, I’m going to make you get past the other categories, first.

Violent and Intense Content:

Icy skeletons of men who died protecting a clue to the treasure—that’s how the violent content starts. And it’s followed by human skulls being smashed underfoot, and a casket falling apart and a decomposed human body falling out underneath.

The explosion was one of those just-in-the-nick-of time situations, so PG was an appropriate rating. The chase scenes were getting a little closer to the edge, however, and were actually a bit on the intense side, with the close-range shooting going on, characters driving at high speeds through D.C. traffic, and a female character hanging on to a swinging van door and almost being hit by bullets and other vehicles. The characters almost falling to their deaths in the bottomless shaft was rather intense for a typical “family movie” environment, but how about the character who really did fall to his death—crying out in terror, crashing through scaffolding, until you just can’t see him any more? That was on the edge of a literal PG-13 in my opinion.

On a more miscellaneous note, a guard is shot with a taser, Ben cuts his own finger to get blood for printing one of the clues, and, when discussing the founding fathers, he says, “had we lost the war, they would have been hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and, oh! my personal favorite: had their entrails cut out and burned!” That will come up again when we talk about Freemasonry.

Sexual Content:
Women are shown in low-backed, halter-necked and plunging-V-necked dresses—some briefly, others not-so-briefly. Dressing-room doors reveal bare calves and bare shoulders as a man and woman change clothes in separate stalls. Egyptian animal-headed statues are seen with bare, female, human torsos, and in a story-telling scene Egyptian slaves are seen shirtless. There are a couple of kisses, one of them fairly passionate.

The verbal sexual content includes Ben’s father automatically assuming that the woman who shows up at his door, next to Ben, is pregnant. She later asks Ben about the history behind the assumption, and he tells her, “My father thinks I’ve been a little too cavalier in my personal life.” Another character refers to an unseen Dr. Chase as a man, and then switches to “very cute man” when he learns that Dr. Chase is a woman. He later refers to her as “that hot girl.”

There’s a little bit of sarcasm, a few slightly derogatory comments, some annoyed back-and-forth between the characters, and some basic ignoring of the speaker—all of which are supposed to be humorous.

Profanity includes minced oaths “darn,” “holy mackerel” and “What the…”, as well as the not-so-minced “bloody” and “hell”.

God’s name is taken in vain a little over half a dozen times.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
A formal occasion sees champagne in the hands of most of the guests, and Ben drinks a whole glassful at once. Ben mentions having played poker with the villain.

Now for the really important stuff. National Treasure is all about hidden messages and subtle themes, and about paying attention to them when you find them. So, here we go—the top eight.

Message #1: American history is exciting, but it’s even better when you lie about, misrepresent and misapply certain parts of it. National Treasure claims, right at the beginning of the movie, that the Knights Templar (who rediscovered the treasure) went on to become known as the Freemasons, a secret society which later included patriots like George Washington and Charles Carroll—the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence. These men, and other Freemason founding fathers, protected the location of the treasure from the British and preserved the Masonic clues in the Great Seal of the United States depicted on the one-dollar bill: the unfinished temple and the all-seeing eye.

A few problems: the Knights Templar have no connection to the Freemasons whatsoever.1 George Washington was, indeed, a Freemason, but his interest in Masonic endeavors seems to have been very minimal, his involvement in them even less significant, and he sometimes went as long as twenty-four years between Lodge meetings2. Charles Carroll wasn’t a Mason at all, and, as a Roman Catholic, couldn’t have become one if he wanted to3. [Incidentally, other famous (and more faithful) Freemasons of that same period include Major John Andre4 and Benedict Arnold5—who somehow escaped mention in the film.] The Freemasons were (and still are) an international organization (hence, Major John Andre), with their headquarters in Great Britain, so if the American Masons had hidden a treasure from the British, it would have been strictly because they were Americans, not because they were Masons. And—oh, yes—the unfinished temple and the all-seeing eye aren’t actually Masonic symbols6.

Message #2: Freemasonry is a good and noble thing. While the teachings of Freemasonry aren’t really gone into—at all—in National Treasure, the organization is decidedly promoted, in being associated with heroic knights and great men like George Washington (see above), in all the casual but gratuitous references to Freemasons (real and fictional), in all the clues to the treasure being marked with Masonic symbols, and in the word “Freemason” being used as a representation of the highest ideals of American patriotism.

Here’s a sampling of the problems with Freemason teachings, from a Christian perspective: 1) The belief that all religions revere the same God (Great Architect of the Universe, or GAOTU), and all Masons are led through symbolism, prayer and good works closer to this God, and even into heaven, regardless of the religion they individually espouse.7 2) The belief in the spiritual “darkness” of non-initiates and those who “miss” the significance of Masonic symbolism, and the “light” of only those who have been initiated.8 3) The teaching of the universal Fatherhood of God, and the universal Brotherhood of man.9 4) The teaching that admission to heaven (or, “the Celestial Lodge above”) is gained by “purity of life and rectitude of conduct,” as well as by symbolically ascending the rounds of Jacob’s ladder, which represent primarily faith, hope and charity.10 5) The “universality” of Freemasonry makes it inappropriate to reference any specific Deity (including Jesus Christ) in prayer during any gathering of Freemasons.11 6) The instruction that the initiation rite of Freemasonry should be approached “in the same spirit that would actuate you if you were being baptized (sic) in your church”.12 7) The teaching that the highest degree of Masonry “represents a man saved from the grave of iniquity and raised to the faith of salvation.”13 8) The position that any “book held holy” by a Mason is to be considered as the Volume of the Sacred Law (or VSL), an “unerring standard of Truth and Justice” containing “Divine precepts.”14

Remember that line from Ben about being drawn and quartered, and having one’s entrails cut out and burned? That is literally on a level with the punishment Freemason initiates are required to swear to, should they, for example, reveal anything that another Mason told them in confidence. They’re just allegorical penalties, to be sure; no one actually means it. But when you take an oath in God’s name, and you don’t really mean it—that’s called taking His name in vain15.

Message #3: Assets we have not earned all on our own should be distributed among the people of the world. From Ben’s father donating a valuable collection of early American documents, because “it’s just by sheer happenstance that [he] even found them,” to Ben’s decision (presumably the only morally viable decision he could have made) to take a treasure we’ve been repeatedly told “was too great for one man,” and “give it to the people” because “it belongs to the world, and everybody in it”—we’re being discipled in the theory of economics that says, if you didn’t earn it, it doesn’t really belong to you… which is not the biblical theory of economics16.

Message #4: Justice is arbitrary. Case in point: Arresting Ian Howe (the bad guy) for “kidnapping, attempted murder and trespassing on government property” (all bad things), while Ben gets to go free, without even a token arrest and hearing, despite having, himself, trespassed on government property (and committed numerous other felonies and misdemeanors, but we’ll get to that later). The “trespassing on government property” is supposed to sound witty, but in reality, it completely takes away the impartiality of justice. Ben is also able to say things like “How ‘bout a bribe?” to an FBI officer without being clapped in irons again, and to bargain for the freedom of his friends Abigail and Riley, despite their having committed felonies, too. As the officer said, “Someone’s got to go to prison, Ben.” It just apparently doesn’t matter who… or how many deserve to.

Message #5: Fathers who are unsympathetic with their sons’ dreams are misguided and unwise. Ben doesn’t shout at, threaten or even mock his dad. And Patrick Gates, the dad, is neither idiotic nor overbearing. But because Patrick is cynical about this dream of finding the treasure, and because (as Ben was so quick to point out) he failed to live up to his own father’s expectations by giving up that dream, we get the idea very early on that Ben’s smugness and condescension are completely appropriate for the circumstances… just what every sophisticated rebel thinks about his own circumstances, with his own parents. And at the end of the movie, when they think they were wrong about the treasure all along, Ben says to his father, “You were right,” and (significant point, here) his father says, “No, I wasn’t right,” and proceeds to encourage Ben to keep following his dream. Resolution of the conflict? Sort of. Ben never apologizes to his dad for his wrong attitude, and we’re not supposed to think he needs to.

Message #6: Illegal activity is cool. This actually started with the discovery of a (cool) smugglers’ hold in an eighteenth-century ship. Ben’s right-hand man Riley breaks into the National Archives’ security cameras, and shuts them down. Ben forges a security pass so that he can get into the Archives. He, of course, steals a very important document (trespassing on government property to do it), and evades arrest afterward. And Riley says, tongue in cheek, “Our evil plan is working.” We’re not talking about motives yet; we’re just talking about the actions. Smuggling, sabotage, breaking and entering, grand theft, trespassing and running from the police are all portrayed as inherently cool. Now, this was all to get the Declaration of Independence away from the bad guy (who, horror of horrors! planned to steal it). Just for the sake of continuing to evade arrest and—oh, yes—finding the treasure, Ben and his friends steal a car and a few hundred dollars from his father, again trespass on government property, deface a government building, and hire the bad guy to help someone escape from the FBI after he was arrested. Still cool? Ask the soundtrack.

Message #7: The ends justify the means… as well as other ends. We could have a healthy debate over the ethics behind stealing the Declaration to protect it from being stolen by someone else. But, once Ben had taken the document, all he would have had to do to protect it from Ian would have been to return it to the National Archives. Guards, FBI agents and the media would have been enough to keep any bad guy from getting a hold of it, and Ben could go ahead and start thinking up ways to justify his actions before a court of law. Why, then, does Ben keep running… and committing new crimes? Because, in National Treasure, doing “what they knew was right” subtly shifts from meaning, “protect an important historical document from the unhallowed hands of a villain” (we’ll get to that later), to “find the treasure before Ian does.” We’re not supposed to notice, but suddenly we find ourselves sanctioning illegal activity for the sake of personal gain… thinking that we’re supporting a noble and patriotic endeavor.

Message #8: The ancient relics of American history are worthy of our reverence, even to the point of martyrdom. Remember those chase scenes with the guns and the near-death experiences? That’s a pretty serious commitment to the Declaration of Independence. So what is it about a piece of paper (admittedly, a very, very important piece of paper) that makes it worth dying for? Ben’s religious awe of history (most notable when he brings the Declaration back to the place where it was originally signed) goes a long way toward explaining his religious devotion. “It’s not worth it” to risk other people’s lives for the treasure, according to Ben, but it is worth it, if it means protecting the Declaration of Independence. He’s willing to bribe the FBI with money, but “the Declaration of Independence is not a bargaining chip. Not to me.” There’s a word for that, if you don’t want to go so far as to call it history-worship. It’s “reverence”—which is something Ben did not have when he visited the graves of the early patriots, when he encountered their remains, or when he sat on the steps of a church altar, bargaining his way out of prison.

Miscellany: Comical greed (at the end, when Riley is complaining about his .5% share of a multi-billion dollar treasure); joking references to aliens and bad omens; a casual view of divorce (when Abigail lies and says she’s hiding from her ex-husband—really a discourteous bad guy—and another woman says, “Honey, you can stay as long as you want… I see why you left him.”); an unbiblical description of King Solomon’s temple (which did not have a winding staircase); and the claim that this Freemason treasure “redefines history for all mankind.”

I’m finished dissecting now. If you can stack up all these bad things on one side of the scale, and put the patriotic action/adventure things on the other side of the scale, and still think that watching National Treasure is a wise use of your family’s time, I’m not going to argue—really, I’m not. This is one of those movies that is going to make viewers use their own discretion, and figure out their own priorities.

As for me and my house, though, the intrigue of National Treasure isn’t worth having to put up with all the other elements that go with it. Historical revisionism is still historical revisionism, even if it takes a patriotic rather than politically correct spin. Noble ends do not always justify illegal means—and personal dreams of finding lost treasure never do. Freemasonry is completely at odds with biblical Christianity. Those are the facts (and if you want more, read the worldview section over again). The high-tech spy gear can’t make up for those; not to me. As interesting as the idea of stealing the Declaration of Independence may be, and even as short as we are on good PG action/adventure films, I won’t be seeing National Treasure again.

2, for example
4 British army officer, hanged in 1780 as a spy by the American Continental Army, under George Washington’s direction.
5 American General during the American War for Independence, plotted to betray West Point into the hands of the British, and, after escaping from the American Army, received a commission in the British Army and went on to lead British forces against the Americans. The name “Benedict Arnold” has become synonymous with “traitor.”
7 Freemasonry: A Way of Life (The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1983), p. 6,
“…the Christian, the Hebrew, the Moslem, the Brahmin, the followers of Confucius and Zoroaster, can assemble as brethren and unite in prayer to the one God who is above all the Baalim.”
Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, p. 226,
8 The Grand Lodge of Nevada’s Officers’ Manual of Lodge Organization and Operation, page 95,
Official Cipher (1960; reprint, New Hampshire: Grand Lodge of New Hampshire, F. & A.M., 1975), p. 26,
9 Freemasonry: A Way of Life (The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1983), p. 6,
10 Emulation Ritual (London: Lewis Masonic Publishers, 1986), pp. 243-244, (footnote 62)
the Heirloom Masonic Bible, p. 33,
11 Indiana “Mentor’s Manual”, pp. 75,76
12 Taking the First Step (Grand Lodge of Virginia)
13 The Lodge Manual of North Carolina, p. 52,
14 Viscount Valentia, Ritus Oxoniensis: Being the Ritual of Craft Freemasonry as Antiently Practised in the Province of Oxfordshire and Elsewhere (London: Lewis Masonic, 1988), pp. 55-56,
The Masonic Information Center,
15 Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11
16 Proverbs 13:22, for example

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