Updated: Jan 4
This movie is the number one box office hit right now, and will be a favorite for all history lovers. There are many fascinating topics that relate to Aaron Burr.
Ben Gates, ably played by Nicholas Cage, is spurned by the respected historical community of nonconformist theories, making him a modern day Burrite -just as the Aaron Burr Association is spurned now by the New York Historical Society, despite our letters of protest to them over the Hamilton exhibit that they ignore.
The main computer access password that Cage figures out is Valley Forge, where the ABA will hold its 2005 annual meeting. It was here that Colonel Burr foiled a mutiny after he instilled discipline in the forward guard troops.
Trinity Church and its cemetery, one of the landmarks described in our ferry tour last summer, also play a large role. Aaron's wife, Theodosia Prevost Burr is believed buried there (as is Hamilton) and there are replica dueling pistols on display inside the church where the action takes place (though neither seen nor referenced.)
Diane Kruger plays Dr. Abigail Chase. She is chief executive of the national archives department (Judge Chase was saved from Jefferson's impeachment attempt by Senate leader, Vice President Aaron Burr) Abigail was of course the first name of first lady Abigail Adams, who was respected for her intellect. Although Kruger is attractive, she is portrayed as Burr would interact with her for her abilities. There are no embarrassing or sexist scenes of her.
She collects George Washington campaign buttons and displays them, (as ABA members collect Burr memorabilia on eBay). Ben Gates fills her collection with a missing button. It is well established that Aaron Burr was the first politician to build a campaign organization in New York that propelled him from almost obscurity to a tie for the Presidency of 1800 with Jefferson.
The movie has a formal cocktail party where historian Nicholas Cage must mingle with the elite of the History Society in a tuxedo to obtain a fingerprint from a glass of champagne. It was in social occasion like this where Burr excelled, especially in New Orleans.
Knowledge of History Trivia is a recurring theme in this film. The #55 is assumed by all participants to mean the number of signers of the Declaration of Independence. (20 year old Burr was not a signer because he was rescuing General Montgomery's body at the Battle of Quebec in early '76.)
As an example of how important history trivia is, I gave a talk about the Duel to the Columbia University Club of Fairfield County twelve days ago. They were unhappy to learn that Hamilton applied to Burr's alma mater Princeton, where he was rejected, so he attended Columbia (King's College) (my alma mater) instead. During my talk I was interrupted by a question: "Who defeated Burr for the governorship of New York in 1804?" This was something a true historian was expected to know.
The movie takes us through many historical buildings. Nicholas Cage gets choked up when he realizes that the Declaration of Independence is back in Independence Hall for the first time since it was signed. This is how three of us ABA members felt this September, when our guide told us we were in the room where Aaron and Theodosia were married.
Letters written to newspapers by Benjamin Franklin under pseudonym play an important role in the movie. Twenty five years later, Hamilton attacked his political opponents this way.
The Charlotte shipwreck is found in the arctic. The Patriot shipwreck that took Aaron's daughter Theodosia on her way from South Carolina to visit her father in New York in January 1813 has not been found.
A mechanical contraption is used by Cage as movable spectacles Benjamin Franklin invented to see ink color. Burr used but did not invent a fountain pen in France in 1811.
The main focus of the movie is the conflict between Cage and his father Patrick Henry Gates played by Jon Voight. How many ABA members have close relatives who say what Voight said: You are ruining your life pursuing this history conspiracy theory. Spend your time on something else to earn more money, etc. But actor Cage stands firm as we do until he prevails. He discusses the difference between being obsessed and being passionate. And the movie defends our cause.
I highly recommend this film despite Rex Reed's snobbish review. You will enjoy it immensely. Especially if you knew like I did about Governor Morgan Lewis.