‘National Treasure’ actually inspires mid-movie history lesson

For some reason, I didn’t see Jerry Bruckheimer’s “National Treasure” the first time around, maybe because I thought it would be full of faux history and contrived action.

And even though, yes, it’s full of faux history and contrived action, the family and I had a genuinely great viewing of this 2004 film this weekend, with all parties except the 5-year-old hanging on the edges of their seats throughout. ( My Only Daughter picked up on the latent tension in the soundtrack and quickly decided to play elsewhere.) Not only did “National Treasure” out-Indiana-Jones the most recent Indiana Jones movie, but it sparked an honest-to-Pete history lesson so pressing that we had to stop the movie.

“What’s the Declaration of Independence?”

“What was the Revolutionary War?”

“Why did that guy sign his name so big?”

So, five years late, I’d like to extend hearty congratulations and thanks to producer Bruckheimer, director Jon Turtletaub, and the cast of screenwriters for making a caper movie that educated my kids without being cloying or off-putting or dumb.

Or at least, not too dumb. Because though I thoroughly enjoyed the riddle-laced hunt (having written one of my own for a slightly younger audience), I can’t excuse an instance of sloppy mystery writing right in the middle.

Obviously, for this movie to work, viewers must suspend disbelief about a number of things, such as: special colored lenses that reveal invisible messages on Revolutionary-era parchment. (That’s fake science, but fun; I can pretend Ben Franklin developed an ink that would only be visible through a certain-color lens.) But what I can’t buy is when a riddle solution pretends to rely on simple science but is, in fact, blatantly wrongo.

Tilting of the earth? They've never heard of it. Yet Daylight Savings Time, *that* they've heard of, and they manage to have a neener-neener smartypants conversation about it.

Mild spoilers. A clue sends Nic Cage to the top of the Liberty Bell tower where, at 2:20, the shadow of the tower will point to the next piece of the puzzle. At this point, no one in the movie says, “Yes, but on what day at 2:20?” Because you can bet someone in the audience — really, anyone who has experienced the changing of seasons — knows that the sun’s height in the sky changes day by day. It’s called the tilt of the earth, and it means a bell tower shadow on July 4 would be dramatically different from a bell tower shadow on Christmas Eve.

As a graduate of Greenhills (Ohio) Middle School, I find it hard to ignore this basic science Fun Fact.

I think director Turtletaub wants me to assume that, as long as the shadow comes close to its target (a particular section of wall), any treasure hunter would be able to uncover the Mason-marked brick no matter the time of year. Fine. But if so, someone in the movie should have addressed me — and all the middle school science teachers out there — with some dialog that hand-waves our question marks away:

Attractive Helpmate: “The shadow will be different depending on the day of the year, right?”

Cocky Treasure Hunter: “Yes, but maybe it falls across something no matter what day we look.”

See? If I can do it for free, surely a well-paid script overseer can, too. Hmm, maybe I smell a job opportunity in the works…

1 Comment

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One response to “‘National Treasure’ actually inspires mid-movie history lesson

  1. bezer

    As with all movies, – buy the premise, – buy the movie. Sometime you have to suspend all basic logic and let the brain wrap itself around “the plot” however thin it might be. I loved this movie, and I’ve seen it more than a few times, but the “DaVinci Code”, I thought, was more suspenseful. Partially because I didn’t know that much about European history (or the lack thereof). Then again, I didn’t know all of the American history either. Shame on me.

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