This analysis of ‘National Treasure’ (2004) will consider how the screenplay’s five plot points create the story’s deep structure. These discrete story points include the ‘Inciting Incident’ in Act 1, ‘Turning Points 1 and 2’ in Act 2, and the ‘Crisis Decision’ and ‘Climax’ in Act 3. Spoiler alert: this structural analysis will reveal crucial plot moments; you may prefer to read this after viewing the film.
This movie’s back story is as follows: as a child, Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), with his father and grandfather, the latter passed on to Ben the torch of the treasure search, a calling he has followed ever since. A series of clues led Ben to the Arctic, where he is just finishing the last leg of his most recent search. His archrival Ian Howe (Sean Bean), another treasure hunter (who believes ethics are for wimps), is there before him. Howe cryptically reveals that he has an even bigger treasure catch in the works.
Back in Washington, he and a friend go to the Smithsonian Institution, a first for Ben. It suddenly clicks for Ben when he sees the Declaration of Independence, a document on display in the museum, that Howe intends to steal that document. They get in to meet with the museum’s director, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who doesn’t believe their story that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is in serious jeopardy. Alas, Ben cannot divulge the evidence without implicating himself. She concludes they are ‘treasure hunters’, which she deduces from their quirky, bizarre behavior. Ben replies that no, they are actually more ‘treasure protectors’, a distinction of which his grandfather would have wholly approved.
Any Hollywood movie’s ‘Inciting Incident’, which occurs usually in the first half hour, challenges the hero to respond to a new development or opportunity. To achieve that response, the hero must internally expand, irrevocably changing his life. The hero is then thrown into a series of escalating accommodations on his journey to understand and solve the Inciting Incident’s original problem.
This movie’s Inciting Incident occurs when Ben concludes, in a brilliant insight, that they will need to ‘steal’ the Declaration of Independence in order to ‘protect’ it. This is exactly what he proceeds to do, using a clever series of stratagems to gain entry, remove and replace the document, and get away. Director Chase seems to understand how Ben thinks, and quickly working out what is happening, she is able to follow and catch up with them.
Turning Point 1. Ben decides he needs to trust Chase, and lets her stay with them, as they abscond with the rolled up Declaration of Independence.
A movie’s Midpoint usually provides the story with a coherence and symmetry that the audience feels unconsciously, and for this reason is important structurally. This film’s Midpoint sees the group arrive at Ben’s father’s home, and initially he will give no help to what he sees as yet another instance of Ben throwing away his life on treasure. He removes the document from the tube that Ben has stored it in, and is appalled, and castigates his son. He idly dusts off one corner on the reverse side, and sees a corner of – a map. A map that gives the location of – what else? – a treasure. The father comes ’round despite himself, and grudgingly agrees to help. The chase is on.
Turning Point 2. Howe and his henchmen have been pursuing Ben and his team. Ben says they must split up, and gives the document in its tube to Director Chase. He has come to trust her.
Act 3’s Crisis Decision is when Ben’s team of four has reached an apparent dead end in the sub-basement beneath the city’s old jail. Ben has serious self-doubt, and concedes that all these years his father has been right. He is about to give up the quest, and all future treasure quests. The father pauses, and then very gently says no, that he feels a great pride in the fact that Ben has never, in all these years, lost faith. He admits that, due to this, he has learned something truly valuable from his son. Ben’s spasm of self-doubt is banished, and he figures out how to get past the dead-end.
The Climax sees the four get into the vault, where a huge treasure awaits.
In the film’s ‘Slow Curtain’ Voiceover, Ben admits he gave up all the treasure to museums around the country. He turns to his sidekick and says, grinning as he holds Abigail, “But I got the girl!” The sidekick gives him a deadpan look, then walks over to his fire engine-red Lamborghini, the ultimate babe-magnet, and smiles smugly as he drives off.
The story’s reversal (to a new stasis) sees Ben living a slightly more normal life with Abigail Chase at his side, yet with his dreams of treasure intact, the value of which are now acknowledged by his father. And this realization has peeled away the father’s pedantic, solemn mask, which he had adopted in reaction to his own father’s preoccupation with treasure.