So many people had recently reminded me that my movie was opening Friday that I realized that I had to go and see it. Theaters in shopping malls, or Georgetown, didn't seem to be very attractive venues during the last days of Christmas shopping, but fortunately, it was also playing ten minutes away in the AMC Courthouse 8. There were plenty of four-hour parking meters within a block of the theater, and we watched the 10:30 AM performance with about a dozen other people.
Trailers I had seen on the Internet looked encouraging, one showing the scene with Secret Service men running down the breezeway where I was standing at the side with two others. It was only for an instant and in the small window it was hard to pick out anything, but I thought that a slightly longer shot on a really big screen might be different.
Before the scheduled start time, when interesting bits of movie lore are flashed on the screen, between reminders that there still is time to purchase popcorn, soda, or candy in the lobby, we learned that when a background babble of conversation is desired in a film, extras are encouraged to say "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, ..." Since this was the first time I'd heard that, we must have been trusted to be interesting conversationalists in our own right.
In the old days (geezer alert!) one would see a few "Coming Attractions" that really were soon coming to this very theater. Today, of course, there is a series of commercials for movies six months or more in the future, some of which may never actually appear here. I had earlier searched the Internet and found the run-time for the film listed as 1:55. Since the next show began two hours later, it seems that the commercials are part of the package. There were two animated films, but I can't remember any of the others that didn't include extensive computer-generated-imagery. Human-only movies are on their way out.
Then, also shades of the old days, there was a hilarious cartoon (Disney was the producer of National Treasure) of Goofy's misadventures while installing a home theater system.
Finally, the movie itself began. The Civil War has just ended when two men enter a tavern and present Thomas Gates, who is a known puzzle solver, with a cryptogram. One leaves the tavern – to assassinate the president – while the other remains behind. Gates' decryption gradually reveals that it is a clue to a map to the fabled City of Gold, and that the men belong to a notorious Confederate cabal. Ripping the pages from John Wilkes Booth's diary, he throws them into the fire, and is shot.
The gunman manages to recover one partially-burned page, and as Gates dies, he recites a cryptic phrase to his son. Fortunately, in spite of the turmoil of crowds in the street reacting to Lincoln's assassination – the sound of the tavern window breaking was the distraction that provided Thomas the opportunity to dispose of the pages – and the shock of witnessing his father dying before his eyes, the nine-year old accurately remembers the phrase.
Fast forward to the present, when Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), a black-market antiquities dealer, produces the page, which is shown to include Gates' name last in a list of known conspirators – the ringleader? Of course a likely explanation is that the conspirators had identified the one man capable of breaking the code for them, but it is up to Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage), the most recent descendant, to find the City of Gold and restore the family's good name.
He enlists the help of estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase, whose forté, by an amazing coincidence, includes spectral imaging of such ancient documents. The page is found to show faint traces of ink from what was on the facing page, which includes parts of the cryptogram. Fortunately, Thomas Gates' dying words have been passed down unchanged from father to son through four generations, since their meaning is the key to that puzzle.
Of course, each clue only leads to another one, the meaning of each of which must be inferred from obscure references. Riley Poole, the electronics whiz from the first film, is recruited to enable them to break into various secure facilities and data bases. Mitch pursues Ben, made easier by having his own electronics whiz clone Ben's father's cell phone. The cryptogram leads to Paris and the smaller replica of the Statue of Liberty along the Seine. Fortunately, the French bicycle police who arrive to ticket Riley for buzzing the monument with a video-camera-equipped radio-controlled helicopter also helpfully translate the quote he finds.
Deciphering the meaning of this clue points to a desk in the Queen's private office in Buckingham Palace, from which an ancient plank carved with glyphs is extracted. Riley's setup in a toilet stall from which he can control and jam the palace's electronic functions ends in a confrontation reminiscent of Larry Craig. After which Ben's crew and the villains, all of whom have just arrived in England, jump in various right-wheel-drive vehicles and expertly careen at high speed through the streets of London. The villains in SUVs and even a huge truck loaded with beer kegs have no trouble keeping up with Ben's Mercedes, and unlike in Paris, there are no police to be seen.
Once back in the U.S., by an another amazing stroke of fortune, Ben's own mother, a professor at the University of Maryland, is revealed to be an expert in the ancient language and can translate the glyphs. Oh yes, and she's Helen Mirren, with no discernible accent.
Unfortunately, she determines that the translation is incomplete because part of the plank is missing. The next destination is a matching desk in the Oval Office; however it does not include the remainder of the plank – it seems the search has reached a dead end. But wait! It may be documented in the Presidents' Book of Secrets, which each president updates during his term. For example, relatively recent entries include the truth about Kennedy's assassination, as well as Area 51. There is the slight problem that Ben's only hope of ever seeing it is to be elected president.
But of course there is another way – kidnap the president at his birthday party at Mt. Vernon! (Our heroes are able to cleverly book all the other likely venues for such an occasion, and fortunately the president's staff members evidently do their planning with a lead time similar to those of many of our trips). Mt. Vernon was chosen because Ben has an old map that shows a secret tunnel beneath the mansion, and he knows that the president, an architecture buff, could be enticed into investigating it.
James Bond style, Ben comes ashore in a frogman suit over his tuxedo, with a bottle of Champagne and two glasses, the better to blend in with those who were actually invited. As you recall, there were three scenes where Charles and I might possibly be seen. Unfortunately, the most likely one, Nick coming by with the bottle of Champagne, ended before he arrived in our area. The film included an earlier aerial shot from a crane, in which, if we get the DVD, we might be able to find ourselves. If, that is, it wasn't actually filmed the previous night.
For the scene where we were at the buffet table when the Secret Service men ran by outside, it turned out that the camera was pointing towards the outside, not towards us.
And the last scene, where Secret Service men were running down the breezeway didn't even make it into the final cut, in spite of the trailer. Perhaps my best chance of seeing myself would have been to come to an earlier movie when they were showing the "Book of Secrets" commercial! The fireworks display shown in the trailer also didn't appear in the final version.
As for the party tent interior, there were two snippets of about five seconds each showing Randy Travis and his band performing. Of course we knew, based on the camera setups, that we had no chance of appearing, but a few fortunate people dancing near the stage will be able to recognize themselves.
Also missing was a scene we'd heard about from chef and chefette extras which involved a chase through the kitchen. And I don't recall seeing a lot of the types called for in the initial casting call: real military, including two Generals and a Major, diplomat couples in authentic formal attire (I know the diplomat types were in the tent, perhaps also the military), George and Martha Washington look-alikes, real bike messengers, twenty skateboarders, real joggers (female), dog walkers with dogs (Betty Lou just reminded me that there was a London scene where Riley got tangled up amongst several dog leashes; maybe that was filmed here), bicyclists with bikes, and a real string quartet.
So all of our efforts and method acting were for naught. But, although my review ends here, it was a pretty cool movie, in spite of various holes in the plot, some of which you may have inferred from the frequent appearance of "fortunately," and "amazing coincidence," and I was surprised at Helen Mirren's extensive role. I had expected that it would be a cameo part, but she (or at least her stunt double) was a real action hero. And if I hadn't actually been there in the 40° temperatures and 20 mph winds with intermittent spates of freezing rain, I'd have believed that it really was a typical Cherry Blossom time in Washington.
And I can't really complain, because I did net $77.26 for my efforts. Or actually, $67.26 after the two tickets. And I guess the profit will further diminish when the DVD comes out.