- Blood and Treasure:A Response to Eric Lott
National Treasure's (2004) convoluted plot is premised on crucial—and curiously widespread—acts of forgetting. The founding fathers who have hidden the vast treasure that serves as the film's title and telos, and who have left any number of obscure clues to its location, have somehow neglected (except one) to alert anyone to its presence, and so an entire nation, save the hapless and much-maligned Gates descendants, has forgotten its patrimony. And a patrimony it decidedly is, given that the film, as Eric Lott notes, is obsessed with generational conflicts and legacies among men. Indeed, the only significant female character seems there largely to prove that one can earn a doctorate and still appear to be 23.
Lott's essay deftly opens up National Treasure's key tensions: most intriguingly, its steadfast refusal to say whether (or precisely how) it's "about the money," to quote Grandpa Gates—whether, as Lott poses the question, the film champions the accumulation and re-founding of an unassailable "national value" or embraces the need for "global reparations." Ben Gates solemnly declares that the treasure he has finally located belongs "to the world," and the film's closing has him ready to fly off to Cairo for one of presumably many exhibition openings. Yet the film declares its treasure's monetary value (seemingly underestimated at ten billion dollars) and dangles before us, finally, the luxuries each of the film's principles has purchased with his one-half percent of the take. Can the redistribution of these artifacts properly be called an act of reparation if the nations in question are asked to buy them back? Does the trope of restoration/reparation merely obscure a newly premised global capitalist domination? It was Benjamin Franklin, after all, the founder after whom our ethical treasure hunter is named, who so astutely wedded virtue to the market.1 [End Page 124] But of course, the treasure is never simply material. These long-lost artifacts can also be read as "the goods" underwriting the promise of the Declaration. That is, this national treasure's (re)distribution materializes the US fantasy of exporting democracy—without, of course, the ensuing quagmire. That so many of the objects named within the film hail from what we now problematically call "the Muslim world" only reinforces such dreams of possession and of the benevolent authority that vast wealth and privilege seem to make possible. If, as the film suggests, we already possess whatever items of value the world has to offer, we can now, with condescension, re-bestow them . . . and later send along the bill.
This interplay of the national and the global—the recto and the verso, in Lott's formulation—affords the film a complexity that its chase scenes and facile father-son rapprochements would seem to belie. Nevertheless, National Treasure's juxtaposition of accessible text and recoverable code figures the Declaration itself as stable and incontestable, a document that inspires that rarest of phenomena: consensus. If US history is indeed a positivist's playground, as the film's serial and ever-successful acts of decoding imply, then the Declaration, the founding sacred text of the American theo-nation, would seem to lie beyond the act of interpretation. After all, we already know what it says.
It is on this narrow point that Lott's analysis lets National Treasure off the hook rather too easily, insofar as both leave uninterrogated the Declaration's central claims to justice and equality. Lott glosses the document as a "personalized litany of grievances" constituting "an essentially oedipal struggle" against the English king. He adroitly undercuts its sacralization within the film, suggesting that the Declaration may simply function here "as a cover story for the pursuit of global capital," that it comprises "a few old, battered phrases about the tyranny of kings" used to dignify the narrative's occasionally disavowed will to accumulate. Nevertheless, the Declaration's status as a statement against tyranny goes unchallenged, allowing National Treasure's most egregious evasions of history to persist.
As Arthur Riss has recently argued in Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature...