In the conspiracy-lite, junk-Raiders knockoff National Treasure: Book of Secrets, one of the few scenes that can pass for witty finds our intrepid hero, Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), ushering the President of the United States down into an ancient, cobwebby, trick-wall catacomb hidden underneath Mount Vernon. I've been in theme-park haunted houses with much scarier lighting, but the moment works because Bruce Greenwood, who has played the president once before (in the monumental Thirteen Days), twinkles with the pleasure of high command, especially when he tells Ben about the President's Secret Book. It's a compendium of privileged data including everything from the missing 18 1⁄2 minutes of Watergate tape to the truth about the Apollo moon missions that gets passed from each chief executive to the next.
Ben figures that the book might be of help, since he's trying to prove that his great-great-grandfather was a Civil War hero and not, in fact, the man who masterminded a conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln. Ben, like the movie, never actually questions the existence of such a plot; he simply wants to clear his relative's name. From the shadow associates of John Wilkes Booth to a hidden pact between Queen Victoria and the Confederacy, Book of Secrets might best be called a crock of intrigue. Like the first National Treasure (2004), it's a Styrofoam-cave cliff-hanger posing as a scavenger hunt all dressed up as a Da Vinci Code version of U.S. history. Yet this film does have a bit more spunk and drive than the first.
Director Jon Turteltaub has fun with Indian glyphs, giant stone pulleys, and an Indy Jones-worthy City of Gold located beneath the rocky shoals of Mount Rushmore. Cage, trying to be light, looks about as gaunt as a Tim Burton ghoul, but he's got a great bit paging through the book of secrets and skipping the part about the JFK assassination because they don't have time. Jon Voight, as Ben's father, and Helen Mirren, as his linguist mom, are touchingly embattled. The movie is about as nourishing as a bowl of trail mix, but it's hard to stop eating. What's next for National Treasure the Teapot Dome scandal? Los Alamos? The mind boggles, as history trembles. B-