Let’s get this out of the way up front—National Treasure is not the best movie ever made. It probably doesn’t even cut into the top 100 adventure movies.
The concept deserves all the eye-rolling it generates: Benjamin Franklin Gates (yes, that’s really his name) races against a team of greedy mercenaries after discovering the Declaration of Independence boasts an invisible treasure map. However, National Treasure is just. . . fun. The creative team understood how goofy the underlying idea was (making well-placed jokes about it throughout) and played it as a tongue-in-cheek, family-friendly version of The Da Vinci Code. Substituting Christian lore with American history, scribes Cormac and Marianne Wibberley kept much of the structure intact. Gates (Nicolas Cage) jumps from city to city within the United States’ original 13 colonies, discovering clues and artifacts that both advance the treasure hunt and provide interesting tidbits of American history. The script never takes the concept too seriously, and neither does Cage or the other actors, who include Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer.
The script itself does many things right. The story begins relatively early on. By page 21 we know the goal (find the priceless, historical treasure), the antagonist (the mercenary who betrayed Gates and is also after the treasure), and the first major obstacle (how will they get to the Declaration of Independence?). The script also gives us a nice ethical dilemma to help us become invested in Gates’ situation: since no government agency will believe him about the invisible map, he has to steal the Declaration of Independence himself before the mercenaries can, and in the process he becomes public enemy #1 for the FBI. Some of the plot points may strain credibility (the heist of the Declaration of Independence is just one example), but the Wibberleys do a good job of justifying the less-believable aspects. Most importantly, each character has clear goals, and their relationships are solid–the standout relationship is between Gates and his estranged father, Patrick Henry Gates, played by Voight. National Treasure didn’t win any Oscars and definitely shouldn’t have, but it’s well-structured entertainment.