Archives in the Movies: National Treasure
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
It was inevitable that I would cover this film. I had it on the backburner as a rainy day kind of article, something to write up quickly if I didn’t feel like delving into another piece of media where actual grey matter was needed. But it seems the winds of pop culture and real life have shifted towards the National Treasure franchise, so here I am to offer my not-so-humble opinion on this Nicolas Cage vehicle for American history conspiracy theorists. For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll only be covering the first film, since it features the National Archives as a set piece.
It was recently announced that a third National Treasure has been given the green-light, which means there will be another history-adjacent film coming out in about two years where the Masons or the Illuminati are involved with another ancestor of the Gates family who needs to be redeemed in the eyes of the world in order to make the plot work. First movie was the Revolutionary War, second movie was the Civil War, so maybe the third will be the Spanish-American War so they can pin one of the Gates family into Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Or WWI, that seems to be the war-of-choice for a lot of movies at the moment.
And I don’t want any of you lovely readers to think I hate these movies. Far from it. They’re dumb, but a fun kind of dumb where you can turn your brain off and laugh at the leaps in logic and the insane amount of infrastructure the Masonic orders kept hidden for over two hundred years before Nic Cage and Sean Bean stumbled upon them. Also, well done Sean Bean for staying alive in a movie. It's rarer than you might think!
So what's National Treasure about, you ask? Well...
Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) is an action academic: historian, cryptographer, and treasure hunter (a triple threat!). After finding a vital clue to a Templar Knights treasure, protected by the Freemasons, that indicates the Declaration of Independence holds the next clue, Ben is betrayed by his good friend Sean Bean - I mean Ian Howe. He then realizes that in order to keep the treasure out of the hands of those other action academics, I think (they never get into whether Bean's character and his posse are smart action villains), who're just in it for the money and not the restoration of family honor (that's pretty much the primary motive for Cage's character), that he's going to have to steal the Declaration of Independence!
Cue the music!
More stuff happens after the theft, but we all know that line is what sold the concept to the viewing audience. Oh, and the movie also features Diane Kruger as Dr. Abigail Chase, curator/archivist of the National Archives, Justin Bartha as Riley Poole, the smart aleck tech expert, Harvey Keitel as FBI Special Agent Peter Sadusky, and Jon Voight as Cage's Father, Patrick Henry Gates.
As far as depictions of archivists and archives go...there's some stuff going on.
Diane Kruger plays an archivist...who gets kidnapped by the Cage and essentially acts as his foil/love interest. Honestly, Gates spends a lot of time talking down to her and it gets really uncomfortable. He gets pissed that she didn't believe him about people coming to steal the Declaration, kidnaps her when she figures out what he's up to, and then spends most of the second act of the film scolding her for her very real concerns about being kidnapped and the fact that he stole the Declaration of Independence. But otherwise, they get on really well with their shared love of history that's prioritized above human life. The one decision I respect most is her logic of joining their treasure hunt purely to protect the Declaration.
Don't get me wrong, she's smart and she gets some nice action-academic bits, but her intelligence is meant to match Gates, not surpass. When the two answer history questions in sync, it's meant to show how compatible they are in their smartness, but, again, only after she's been kidnapped and scolded thoroughly for her disbelief in Gates's warnings of probable theft and the truth about a treasure map on the back of an historic document. She even agrees to being part of Gates's reward after the treasure is recovered because he "gets the girl." There are so many red flags in this relationship.
As far as the archives are represented, the National Archives is basically a set dressing for Cage's character to do an Ocean's 11 on one of America's founding documents. And they definitely doctored up the CSI forensics laboratory where the Declaration is sent for conservation/preservation purposes. I think the most unbelievable moment in the movie, and that's saying something, is when Gates pulls the Declaration out of its bulletproof casing (it was shot multiple times) and rolls it up like your average college dorm room poster. I have a background in American history, specifically the Revolution through the Early Republic, even more specifically I studied the Constitution and the Declaration and I can tell you right now that the 200+ years old piece of parchment written with iron gall ink isn't going to roll clean enough to stuff in a tube. Gates is actively doing structural damage to the document he stole in order to "save."
Now that would have been an amazing scene! Devastating for the characters, but amazing nonetheless. Also, that invisible ink has quite the shelf life, though I wonder if the Freemasons were sending people in to renew the ink with one of those blotters my grandmother used to play BINGO. Gotta keep the conspiracy theory/truth alive somehow. What's the point of hiding something if you don't want it to be found by a disgraced historian, a merry band of mercenaries, and one kidnapped lady archivist?
The point here is that the National Archives is only useful as a place to break into and, according to the movie, there are a lot of ways to break into the archives and the security is pretty lax...unless you don't happen to have an invite to the gala. Then you're out on your ass, pal! It doesn't exactly paint a picture of confidence over the integrity or security of the institution.
Which is my way of steering us towards the real life National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and it's inability to show integrity to the American public. On January 17th, Joe Heim of the Washington Post reported that the National Archives intentionally blurred images of signs from the 2017 Women's March that were critical of "President" Trump in their lobby exhibit for the anniversary of the march. In doing so, the National Archives deliberately altered an historical record under the guise of being "non-partisan." This is a lie because being "non-partisan," like being "neutral" is a lie. Someone chose an image, granted a promotional image, and then someone chose to blur the signs critical of Trump, which alters the intention of the signs while simultaneously silencing the participants and negating the march's purpose. Choices were made and those choices were in favor of cowering before Trump and his conservative cronies.
Why am I bringing it up in this article? Because public perception of archives is nonexistent in the grande scheme of things. Indiana Jones is still most people's reference point (inaccurate as it is) about the profession and the only time people seem to understand archives exist is when something bad happens and it ends up in the news. Those news reports feed into the already shaky confidence anyone has in governmental institutions and contributes to skepticism towards the people working in those institutions and, by extension, their profession. It sounds hyperbolic, but it's not improbable.
I will say that NARA was quick to apologize and adjust the exhibit, but the fact that it happened and might have gone unnoticed if someone wasn't looking still makes their actions dubious, at best. There are thousands of images they could have used, but they wanted to placate Trump's conservative base while capitalizing on the Women's March. That kind of opportunistic bullshit presents archives and archivists in an even worse light. It brings attention to the continuing problem of public trust towards how archival repositories use and manipulate records, specifically records pertaining to marginalized communities.
So, really, what I'm trying to say is, "Thanks, NARA, for making the conversation even harder and making me suspicious by proxy! Couldn't have asked for a better 2020!"