I have been exploring quite a few reel archivist portrayals lately, inspired by articles I have recently read, as detailed in my “Reel librarians vs. reel archivists” post. In all the articles I read about reel archivists, Diane Kruger’s role as Dr. Abigail Chase in National Treasure (2004) was highlighted, so I thought it would be perfect timing to revisit that film, “arguably one of the best known movies with an archival plot line” (Region of PEEL Archives).
So get out your white gloves and lemon juice — this analysis post is a long one!
*SPOILERS AHEAD THROUGHOUT*
Here’s a trailer for National Treasure:
Below is a quick recap of the film from the “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists” article by Aldred, Burr, and Park:
“Benjamin Franklin Gates is a treasure hunter searching for the Founding Fathers’ hidden treasure. Clues lead him to the conclusion that he must steal the Declaration of Independence , where Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), National Archives and Records Administration employee, gets caught up in the affair, and helps Gates discover the treasure.” (p. 88)
Diane Kruger gets 2nd billing in the cast, and is the top female lead. According to the film’s IMDb.com trivia page, her character’s name, Abigail Chase “is a combination of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, and Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.”
Here’s how Aldred, Burr, and Park describe the character of Dr. Chase and how she fits into the history of reel archivists who are also main characters:
“Those reel archivists who were main characters were portrayed in an overall positive light, rather than as a stereotype. They were the heroes of the film, solving mysteries, fighting vampires, and trying to help those in need. They were educated individuals with distinct personalities. Abigail Chase of National Treasure (2004) was a curious, intelligent archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. She was the only reel archivist examined whose level of education was explicit (doctorate), who was the protagonist’s love interest, and was the only female main character in the film. Unfortunately, even though she was positively portrayed, she was never formally identified as an archivist at any time during the film. To the audience, she is nothing more than a knowledgeable treasure hunter.” (p. 84-85)
First archives spotting:
At 23 mins into the film, Gates is trying to alert authorities that Ian Howe (Sean Bean) will try to steal the Declaration of Independence. After getting laughed out of the FBI, Gates and his sidekick assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), set out for the National Archives.
Why the National Archives?
Right before this scene, Gates and Riley discuss who they should contact to help prevent the theft of the document.
Gates: We don’t need anyone crazy. We just need someone short of crazy.
As Buckley states in the “The Truth is in the Red Files” essay:
“The next scene shows the two characters waiting for a meeting with the archivist, indicating that the archivist had the requisite ‘passion’ they were seeking” and “Equally telling is the portrayal of the archivist, and the emphasis placed on her passionate dedication to her profession” (p. 121).
But before showcasing her passion, Dr. Chase demonstrates a healthy dose of skepticism.
As Gates and Riley wait, Dr. Chase’s assistant announces that “Dr. Chase can see you now.” This reveals her qualifications immediately but does not reveal her gender. The two men are (annoyingly) surprised that “Dr. Chase” is a woman.
I also love that Chase has a “Rosie the Riveter” poster in her office, which you can spy in the upper right corner in the screenshot below.
They exchange a bit of small talk. It’s also important to note that Gates has stated his surname is “Brown,” because his family has a less-than-stellar reputation.
Chase: Nice to meet you.
Gates: Your accent. Pennsylvania Dutch?
Chase: Saxony German.
Riley: You’re not American?
Chase: Oh, I am an American. I just wasn’t born here.
[Note: I really liked this brief exchange. It not only neatly dispatched the issue of Diane Kruger’s real-life German accent, but also reinforced the idea that there are Americans born abroad who are just as American and as patriotic as those born in the U.S. Full disclosure, I also happen to be an American born abroad!]
In this exchange below, you can also get the sense of how Gates thinks he is being clever in trying to “talk around” Chase, but she’s not having any of it. Her questions are insightful, knowledgeable, and to the point.
Chase: Now, you told my assistant that this was an urgent matter.
Gates: Yes, ma’am. Well, I’m gonna get straight to the point. Someone’s gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.
Riley: It’s true.
Chase: I think I’d better put you gentlemen in touch with the FBI.
Gates: We’ve been to the FBI.
Riley: They assured us that the Declaration cannot possibly be stolen.
Chase: They’re right.
Gates: My friend and I are less certain. However, if we were given the privilege of examining the document, we would be able to tell you for certain if it were actually in any danger.
Chase: [shooting him a knowing look, sits back in her chair] What do you think you’re gonna find?
Gates: [getting uncomfortable] We believe that there’s an… encryption on the back.
Chase: An encryption, like a code?
Gates: Yes, ma’am.
Chase: Of what?
Gates: Uh… a cartograph.
Chase: A map.
Gates: Yes, ma’am.
Chase: A map of what?
Gates: The location of… [nervously clears throat, as per the subtitles] hidden items of historic and intrinsic value.
Chase: [shakes head as though to clear it] A treasure map?
Riley: That’s where we lost the FBI.
Chase: You’re treasure hunters, aren’t you?
Gates: We’re more like treasure protectors.
Chase: Mr. Brown, I have personally seen the back of the Declaration of Independence, and I promise you, the only thing there is a notation that reads, “Original Declaration of Independence, dated… “
Gates: … “Fourth of July, 1776.” Yes, ma’am.
Chase: But no map.
Gates: It’s invisible.
Chase: Oh, right.
Riley: And that’s where we lost the Department of Homeland Security.
Chase: What led you to assume there’s this invisible map?
Gates: We found an engraving on the stem of a 200-year-old pipe.
Riley: Owned by Freemasons.
Chase: May I see the pipe?
Riley: We don’t have it.
Chase: Did Bigfoot take it? [This line was used in the trailer!]
Gates: It was nice meeting you.
Lasting 3 minutes in total, what is the ultimate point of this introductory scene? It establishes Dr. Chase as smart, credentialed, skeptical, and protective of historical artifacts — plus, she can more than hold her own against men who think they know more than she does. It also establishes a lot of backstory and exposition in a brief amount of time.
This scene is also vital because after this exchange with Dr. Chase, Gates decides he has to steal the document himself, in order to protect it. Riley then tries to convince Gates that stealing the Declaration of Independence cannot be done.
Library of Congress research scene:
Cue the obligatory research scene in a library!
At 28 minutes into the film, the camera pans down the iconic Library of Congress Reading Room, to where Riley and Gates are seated at a desk, surrounded by books. And it’s these readily available books that allow them to figure out a way into the National Archives to steal the Declaration of Independence.
Don’t try this at home, y’all. Or in your local public library. 😉
Riley: I’ve brought you to the Library of Congress. Why? Because it’s the biggest library in the world. Over 20 million books. And they’re all saying the same exact thing: Listen to Riley. What you have here, my friend, is an entire layout of the Archives, short of builder’s blueprints. You’ve got construction orders, phone lines, water and sewage — it’s all here. Now, when the Declaration is on display, ok, it is surrounded by guards and video monitors and a little family from Iowa and little kids on their eighth-grade field trip. And beneath an inch of bulletproof glass is an army of sensors and heat monitors that will go off if someone gets too close with a high fever. Now, when it’s not on display, it is lowered into a four-foot-thick concrete, steel-plated vault that happens to be equipped with an electronic combination lock and biometric access-denial systems.
Gates: You know, Thomas Edison tried and failed nearly 2,000 times to develop the carbonized cotton-thread filament for the incandescent light bulb…. He only had to find 1 way to make it work.
Gates then puts a book on the table.
[Note: As according to IMDb.com trivia page, “The book that Ben shows Riley in the Library of Congress, that has the information about the Preservation Room, is called ‘The Earth System.’ It is some sort of a textbook, and it is authored by Lee Kump, James F. Kasting, and Robert G. Crane. The ISBN is 0131420593.”]
Gates: The Preservation Room. Enjoy. Go ahead. Do you know what the Preservation Room is for?
Riley: Delicious jams and jellies?
Gates: No. That’s where they clean, repair and maintain all the documents and the storage housings when they’re not on display or in the vault. Now, when the case needs work they take it out of the vault, directly across the hall, and into the Preservation Room. The best time for us, or Ian, to steal it would be during the gala this weekend, when the guards are distracted by the VIPs upstairs. But we’ll make our way to the Preservation Rom, where there’s much less security.
Riley: Huh…. this might be possible.
They then prepare for the
heist… uh, rescue.
Chase in charge:
Riley hacks into a computer system to heat up the glass surrounding the Declaration of Independence, in order to force the document into the Preservation Room. Dr. Chase is immediately alerted to this and sets off, with a male colleague, into the basement to enter the room. It’s clear that Dr. Chase is the one in charge, and we hear her narration as she orders a full diagnostics.
Of course, Dr. Chase does not realize that she is unwittingly helping Gates and Riley steal the very artifact she is pledged to protect!
A gala, a chase, and Chase:
A gala scene at the National Archives begins at 37 minutes into the film, and we get to see Dr. Chase all dressed up in a classic cocktail dress and kitten heels. Gates hands her champagne for a toast, “Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right. What they knew was right.” Chase’s eyes narrow as she listens. She knows he’s up to something!
Gates then uses Chase’s fingerprints on the glass of champagne to get into the Preservation Room! Gates does successfully steal the document but also encounters the rival team of (evil) treasure hunters, led by Ian Howe (Sean Bean). As Gates tries to escape through the National Archives — buying a dummy copy of the document in the lobby’s gift shop! — Abby spies Gates and, full of suspicion, follows him.
Riley: Ben, the mean Declaration lady’s behind you.
Totally unafraid — and undeterred by being called the “mean Declaration lady” — Chase then calls out for security, grabs the rolled-up document, and attempts to run back to the National Archives in heels. Unfortunately, that’s when the baddies grab her AND the document. The lead baddie, Howe, tries to scare her into giving up the document, but she doesn’t give in. Gates and Riley then follow her in a van and rescue her, but Kruger did most of her own stunts in this scene!
Turning Chase into a fellow treasure
As they speed away from the baddies, Chase is still not having any of it:
Chase: I’m not all right. Those men have the Declaration of Independence!
Gates shows her the real document, meaning that the baddies got the dummy poster copy.
Chase: [attempting to grab the document] Give me that! Who were those men?
Gates: Just the guys we warned you would steal the Declaration of Independence.
Riley: And you didn’t believe us.
Gates: We did the only thing we could do to keep it safe.
The truth then comes out about Gates’s true identity.
Chase: I want that document, Mr. Brown!
Gates: My name is Gates.
Chase: Did you just say Gates? Gates? You’re that family with the conspiracy theory about the Founding Fathers? You know what? I take it back. You’re not liars. You’re insane.
The two men then reveal their plan to run chemical tests on the Declaration of Independence to uncover the “invisible map” they had alluded to in their earlier conversation with Chase.
Chase: You can’t seriously intend to run chemical tests on the Declaration of Independence in the back of a moving van.
Riley: We have a clean-room environment all set up. EDS suits, a particulate air filtration system, the whole shebang.
It is nice to hear that Chase had set up a “clean-room environment” to preserve the archival integrity of the document. And that Dr. Chase is impressed by this.
Gates: We can’t go back there. … We need those letters.
Chase: What letters? You have the original Silence Dogood letters? Did you steal those, too?
Gates: We have scans of the originals. Quiet, please.
Chase: How’d you get scans?
Gates: Oh, I know the person who has the originals. Now shush.
Chase: Why do you need them?
Gates: She really can’t shut her mouth, can she? Tell you what, look. I will let you hold on to this [hands her the Declaration of Independence in the case] if you promise to shut up, please. Thank you.
While he’s thinking and talking with Riley, Chase is plotting yet another escape. She’s scrappy, isn’t she?! She tries to run, but she doesn’t get very far. And this next bit is the final turn in the screw, when Chase becomes complicit in the treasure hunter adventure.
Chase: I’m not going. Not without the Declaration.
Gates: You’re not going with the Declaration.
Chase: Yes, I am. I’m not letting it out of my sight, so I’m going.
As the Region of Peel Archives put it:
“Gates and his assistant Riley Poole manage to steal the document from the National Archives, and while doing so they unwittingly involve Abigail Chase, one of the nation’s archivists. The three of them then attempt to locate the treasure before a ruthless gang of criminals can. It is interesting that while dragged in against her will initially, Chase comes to embrace the adventure, although she, like any good archivist, remains fiercely protective of the Declaration document.”
I was also super impressed by Diane Kruger’s facial expressions throughout these scenes. Her suspicious glare is excellent, and it deepens as she gets drawn into the plot, as evidenced in the screenshots below. The top screenshot is from her introductory scene, the middle is from the gala, and the bottom is when she holds onto the Declaration of Independence case in the van.
Destroying the Declaration of Independence:
The trio then travel to visit Gates’s father, played by Jon Voight, in order to uncover the code on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of a “clean-room environment,” they have a dining table, a hairdryer, and a bowl of lemons. At least they’re wearing white gloves?! No wonder Dr. Chase is looking so guilty.
Gates then takes a lemon and is about to squeeze it onto the back of the Declaration of Independence. Not so fast!
Chase: You can’t do that.
Gates: But it has to be done.
Chase: Then someone who is trained to handle antique documents is gonna do it.
Chase: Ok. Now, uh, if there’s a secret message, it’ll probably be marked by a symbol in the upper right-hand corner. [rubs a Q-tip on the lemon] I’m so getting fired for this.
Gate: We need more juice.
Chase: We need more heat. [she grabs a hairdryer!]
Chase then handles the hairdryer. With gloves on. As any self-respecting archivist would do. 😉
Chase, Riley, and Gates are definitely in it together now!
Buckley comments on the juxtaposition of a reel archivist protecting and destroying the archival documents at the same time:
“Although the objections of the archivist [in National Treasure] to the use (abuse?) of archival documents are overruled in favour of the entertainment value of high-speed chases and nail-biting cliffhangers, those objections are strongly voiced, and they are heard. While the audience may enjoy the entertaining machinations involved in retrieving the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives, the authority of this document or of its custodians is never in question. The continued importance placed on archival value is evident in the scenes involving the Declaration, as well as in the preservation and display of the Silence Dogood letters in the Benjamin Franklin Archive.” (p. 121)
They make their way to the next clue in the Silence Dogood letters in the Benjamin Franklin Archive as then on to the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At Independence Hall, at 1 hour and 17 minutes into the film, they unfurl the Declaration of Independence in order to read the next clue, and Gates tries to school Chase on archival etiquette. And bless Dr. Chase’s sassy heart.
Chase: Here, help me.
Chase: You think?
Calling the shots:
The baddies then show up, and Riley and Chase run off together with the document case, in order to create a diversion from Gates. Lots of ACTION and PLOT and CLUES ensue, but it finally comes down to Chase figuring out how to make a trade with the baddies.
Or as the bald baddy says to Gates, “Ask your girlfriend [referring to Chase]. She’s the one calling all the shots now. She won’t shut up.” Hah! 😀
The final action scene takes place in an underground passageway and vault, where they find the hidden treasure. But what is the most valuable hidden treasure for the reel archivist?
I loved that Chase was not wooed or awed by the gold and the jewels but rather by the scrolls from Alexandria!
As the Region of Peel Archives states:
The team is ultimately successful, locating the treasure deep underground in Manhattan. Ever the faithful archivist, Chase is not drawn to the gold jewelry, statues, or other artifacts found in the huge underground cavern, but rather to what she identifies as scrolls from the lost Library of Alexandria.
Abigail Chase also made an impression on Ben Gates, as the first things Gates asks the FBI is that “Dr. Chase gets off clean, without a mark on her record.” I really appreciated that Gates (a) put her professional needs first, and (b) referred to Chase by her title and credentials.
Getting the last line:
In the final scene, Chase and Gates and Riley are all talking together in a garden setting. It’s clear Chase and Gates are together, as they are holding hands. Ever the professional, Chase has a book in her hand.
Riley then takes off in his new sports car, and Chase has one last surprise for Gates:
Chase: I made something for you.
Gates: You did?
Chase: A map.
Gates: Where does it lead to?
Chase: You’ll figure it out.
I love that the reel archivist gets the last line in the movie!
Alternate ending in the National Archives:
But Gates did not get the last line in the movie in the original ending, which was changed after the original didn’t test well with audiences.
The original ending was set back in the National Archives, with the Declaration of Independence back in its case. Gates is looking over the Constitution, also in a glass case. Chase has her arm through Gates’s arm, so it’s still clear that they are together.
Chase: What are you thinking about?
Chase: There’s nothing on the back of the Constitution.
Gates: I wasn’t thinking that. Are you sure?
Chase: I already checked it out. [They laugh together]
This original exchange is funny — and reinforces Chase’s ambition and initiative! — but Riley gets the last line: “Guys, do you think we could keep some of the treasure this time?“
I like that they changed the ending so that the reel archivists gets the last laugh!
The importance of the reel archivist role:
Ultimately, I agree with Buckley, who sums up Dr. Abigail Chase’s role and this popcorn action film this way:
“Buried beneath the stereotypical images are elements of the truth: that records matter, that protection of the record matters, and that the protectors of the records are dedicated to their profession.” (p. 120-121)
Although the film is full of plot holes and historical errors — see here for a video run-down of all the historical inaccuracies in 13 minutes or less — I enjoyed rewatching and analyzing Dr. Chase’s character, and how refreshingly original and non-stereotypical her character turns out to be. I think a lot of this comes down to how Diane Kruger played the character, with an innate sense of feistiness, as a woman who is used to dealing with men who underestimate her. She does NOT underestimate herself, and I agree that Dr. Abigail Chase is ultimately a positive portrayal of a reel archivist. I would also argue, although she is not technically a reel librarian (I do, however, choose to include both reel archivists and reel librarians in my research), that she does fit into the category of Atypical Portrayals, and her importance to the film lands it in the Class I category.
Continuing the conversation:
Have you seen the National Treasure film, or its sequel? What do you think of the Dr. Abigail Chase character and her role as a reel archivist? Do you find her portrayal stereotypical, or not? Please leave a comment and share!
- Aldred, Tania, Gordon Burr, and Eun Park. “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists.” Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 66 (Fall 2008): 57–93.
- Buckley, Karen. “‘The Truth is in the Red Files’: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture.” Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 66 (Fall 2008): 95–123.
- National Treasure. Dir. Jon Turteltaub. Perf. Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Sean Bean. Buena Vista, 2004.
- “National Treasure (2004) Trivia.” IMDb.com. Accessed 28 August 2018.
- Region of Peel Archives. “An archivist’s night at the movies: Revealing the power of archival records.” Archives @ PAMA. 30 August 2016.