National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

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National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Dir. Jon Turtletaub
Premiered December 13, 2007

First, an apology in order: I had to take a break from these. I got a job and a life, and also a roommate who just got out of a long period of unemployment involving lots of TV-hogging. But now I’m back.\

After Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl did unexpectedly well, The Walt Disney Company gave action maven Jerry Bruckheimer free rein to produce a long-gestating project by Disney vet Jon Turtletaub (3 Ninjas, Cool Runnings, etc.). Released in 2004, National Treasure is a family-friendly take on conspiracy thrillers and Indiana Jones knowledge quests with a patriotic twist, sending fringe historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) on a journey to steal the United States Declaration of Independence and use it to find buried Masonic treasure before the baddies can do the same for profit.

By the time of National Treasure’s release, America had gone wild for Dan Brown’s airport potboiler The Da Vinci Code, necessarily inviting comparisons. For my money, National Treasure did it better by not taking itself so seriously, much in the same way as Disney had done with The Three Musketeers eleven years earlier. But it’s still a wasted opportunity: the first act is terribly paced, Nicolas Cage is pointlessly restrained, and while his sidekick Riley seems to have been written in the mode of “sarcastic Ryan Gosling” (albeit long before such a thing existed), Justin Bartha underacts like a high schooler doing Hamlet. As a whole, it’s inoffensive but undercooked, and I found myself reacting much as I did to the Giro D’Italia starting in Jerusalem: with informed indifference.

Most critics felt the same, but National Treasure made a healthy enough profit to get the go-ahead for one sequel, which at the time was probably for the best and brings us back to 2007, and Cage’s third starring role of that year– yet another disappointment.

Despite improving on many of the first movie’s criticisms– Cage gets in plenty of trademark mugging, and the character of Riley is better calibrated to match Justin Bartha’s persona– National Treasure: Book of Secrets is so contrived and convoluted that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.

The story begins with Gates’ revelation to a historical society that his great-grandfather Thomas died protecting a hidden treasure from the slaver conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. That is until shadowy Southern gentleman Wilkerson (Ed Harris) reveals a long-lost page from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary suggesting that Thomas was actually one of those collaborators.

Desperate to clear his ancestor’s name, Gates uncovers a cipher that leads him to yet another lost treasure: a buried city of indigenous gold sought after by the Confederates and now their descendant Wilkerson, who has brought a team of mercenaries to make sure that he alone will find the treasure and reclaim glory for his family.

While the groundwork for the plot is laid out, movie curses us with the same soft reset that everyone hated in Ghostbusters 2, in which our heroes have become either morons or unaccountable jerks offscreen so they can start over just as lonely and broke as they were at the beginning of the first movie. But why? The only people hoping to profit from the first movie’s treasure were the villains, and no one at all is trying to do that this time around. Likewise, Gates and Abigail’s (Diane Kruger) breakup– which, despite not being a divorce, results in Gates being kicked out of his own house– has no real impact on the characters’ relationship, only serving on occasion to flimsily overcome some minor plot obstacles.

And boy, does that plot pile up. The plot of National Treasure had just three locations and two artifacts which, once found, always stayed with the characters. Here, MacGuffins, characters, and entire schemes flit in and out directionlessly as the characters stumble through a rollercoaster of contingencies and detours, including a minor but trailer-friendly scheme to kidnap the US President (Bruce Greenwood). Between this and some tortured digressions into “cute” romantic squabbling by both Gates and his parents (Jon Voight and Helen Mirren), the baddies disappear for extended stretches, and virtually everyone’s motivations and goals get lost.

Likewise, the movie’s hyperactive tendency to bring in even more worldly locations opens some gaping plot holes, and happily calls attention to them: first our heroes get ticketed for using a drone in Paris, but then the baddies chase them through London, causing massive damage, with no consequences. Later, the team is pursued across Washington for kidnapping the President, but then find their way to South Dakota without incident.

While National Treasure augmented the American mythos with its own quirky fable, Book of Secrets actively misrepresents it in order to accommodate its ramble of a plot. This movie seems convinced that the Confederates not only could have won the war, but always could have won. Thomas Gates stopped Lincoln’s assassins in order to end the war, despite the South having already surrendered. Queen Victoria is discovered to have wanted to help the Confederacy in order to protect access to southern cotton (no) even after the South had been starved into submission. It also thinks the Lakota were hanging around Mount Rushmore in the 16th Century. Perhaps these are nitpicks on my part, but they speak to a disrespect for history that the first movie, mediocre as it was, fought tirelessly to avoid; and a desperately lazy approach to writing that should not have been surprising from the couple who penned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and G-Force.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Product placement for Borders, again. Everyone– everyone– has Moto Razr phones.

How Did It Do?
National Treasure: Book of Secrets grossed $457.4 million against a $130 million budget, far exceeding the original to become the 9th biggest movie of 2007. Despite this success, and a low-key sequel hook in the film’s epilogue, plans to continue the franchise have continued to stall long after interest in the series has declined. That may have to do with the poor critical reception, especially in the UK where it was assailed for implying British sympathies toward the slaveholders of the Confederacy. Ultimately, the picture earned a damp 35% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a couple of Razzie nominations.

Next Time: The Bucket List

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Gone Baby Gone (2007)

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Gone Baby Gone
Dir. Ben Affleck
Premiered at Deauville September 5, 2007

Ben Affleck wasn’t in a great place professionally in 2007. Already overshadowed by collaborator and best friend Matt Damon, Affleck’s 2000s were studded with notorious flops and critically-derided disasters, and got more attention for his romantic partners than for his work. I have no idea what the expectations were for his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, but I’m sure news of his ambitions behind the camera were viewed with skepticism. After the film came out, though? Let’s just say he had a very different career afterward.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone begins with the disappearance of five-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien) in the tight-knit community of Dorchester in Boston. Upset over the lack of progress by police, the girl’s aunt (Amy Madigan) seeks out private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) in the hope that they can find the truth. In their investigations, Kenzie and Gennaro chafe against the police captain in charge of finding lost children (Morgan Freeman), but find an unlikely ally in Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), the iron-willed detective in charge of the case, which exposes mother Helene (Amy Ryan) as a neglectful parent with deeply suspect links to Boston’s underground.

When the investigation is seemingly solved, Kenzie is alerted to another missing child case involving some former suspects in Amanda’s kidnapping, causing Amanda’s case to unravel and threaten Kenzie’s good-natured idealism as he clashes with the cynic Bressant.

Except for his eye for landscapes and passion for his hometown, Gone Baby Gone did not mark Affleck out as a particularly identifiable director. Luckily, he did a damn good job anyway. The film is gorgeous, filling every inch of the screen with an intimate and uncompromising feel for Boston and its people. Affleck’s brother Casey, last seen creeping us out in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, perfectly captures a man who is above the fray but not above the people in it. More than anything, Gone Baby Gone offers a striking moral outlook that is rarely presented in film: that in order to be good, one must uphold the law and work to make a better world.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The date appears in several places. The working classes of Boston resemble Britain’s chavs. Helene proclaims “it feels like 9/11.”

Additional Notes
My word, Gone Baby Gone doesn’t dispell any stereotypes about Boston. Literally every civilian besides Kenzie and Gennaro is presented as a boorish, provincial, violent racist.

Does anyone else see this title and immediately think of the Violent Femmes?

How Did It Do?
Gone Baby Gone grossed $34.6 million against a $19 million budget, a stellar 94% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and netted Amy Ryan an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Ben Affleck’s subsequent career as a director yielded The Town and Argo before losing critics and audiences alike with 2016’s Live by Night, ironically another Dennis Lehane adaptation.

Next Time: Nightwatching