Sean Connery hands Nicholas Cage a slip of paper as bagpipes whisper. Front pew, Right Leg it reads. It’s the map to a buried treasure. The great American mystery in a church pew in Fort Walton, Kansas. Gold? Eternal Youth? Absolute knowledge? No, it’s a tiny little microfilm. Cage holds the film up to the light. “Honey,” he chuckles, “wanna know who really killed JFK?”
After all the violence, explosions terror and death we find out that The Rock was all about the Kennedy Assassination.The US Government wasn’t trying to stop a chemical weapon from eliminating San Francisco or saving the lives of hapless tourists. It was all part of a 30-year-old cover-up intended to obscure who killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It’s just a joke to round out the movie, a winking zinger of a stinger at the end of an exhausting adventure. But the producers picked that particular piece of buried treasure for a reason. The truth is the ultimate prize. Finally finding the identity of the men who killed the last liberal president is to finally find the secret cabal of conspirators who rub their hands maniacally in the paranoid corners of the collective subconscious.
The Rock reaches achingly into the American soul, eulogizing the forgotten victims of endless war. The “villain” of the piece, Ed Harris, is not motivated by greed or lust for power. He acts out of a sense of duty to his fallen comrades and their families. His means are evil, but his goal is stubbornly Washingtonian. Like Sean Connery’s character, Harris’ fought in the hot flashes of the Cold War, where heroes and villains alike were buried without gravestones. His war was Vietnam, the war which began the day Kennedy was shot. The movie never tells us who Nicholas Cage sees in that microfilm, but rest assured they are the same men who betrayed Ed Harris and his men. Their crimes bring them to Alcatraz, and we learn their respective transgressions were both gnawing away on the same serpent’s tail. Harris weaponizes Alcatraz, a symbol of our power and isolation in plain sight, turning the rotting ruin into a grand stage to put the American experiment on trial.
There’s a meta-game at play here. Even as a child I understood that John Mason was supposed to be James Bond in The Rock. The name itself can be interpreted as a puzzle, consisting of the names of two men who had both been cast as James Bond only to be replaced by Sean Connery: John Gavin and James Mason. Studios spent 100s of millions of dollars fighting over rights to James Bond, not realising that the character of Sean Connery as James Bond is not owned by anyone except Sean Connery.
By casting Sean Connery, the filmmakers are telling us that the truth about the Kennedy Assassination is a secret so well kept that only the real James Bond snatch it from the hands of the conspirators. By making him a former prisoner of Alcatraz, we are told that uncovering the truth is a crime so egregious to the American establishment that they lock up a man who should be regarded as a hero as a political prisoner in an ominous oubliette nestled behind the Golden Gate that marks the threshold of the Western world, a world Sean Connery’s 007 had helped build and defend.
And while Connery’s performance is a coda for his performance as James Bond, Nicholas Cage in The Rock foreshadows his role in the National Treasure pictures. In those films he plays a treasure-hunter dedicated to learning about the real history of our country, the true stories of our forefathers, the creaky secrets behind the statues of presidents and stories of cherry trees and log cabins. The American imagination was tickled by the idea that the guy from Moonstruck was the only guy other than James Bond who could find out who killed Kennedy that they spun it into its own movie. The notion inspired a lively subreddit where users muse that the last scene of The Rock is actually the first scene of National Treasure.
So where does that leave us? What does this say about the current state of the investigation into who killed JFK? Is it something as impossible as escaping Alcatraz or meaningless as the joke at the end of a Hollywood movie? Perhaps it’s neither and both. Either way, the mystery endures.