Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Jimmy Stewart "tours" the city in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
AFI Stills Collection

The Movies Go to Washington

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

Opening Friday, "Talk to Me" is a true Washington story: Don Cheadle stars as Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, a hustler and ex-con who, after getting out of prison in the mid-'60s, became a broadcast icon in the black community, a streetwise, motormouth activist whose television show, "Petey Green's Washington," was carried nationwide in the early '80s by Black Entertainment Television. (For a review of "Talk to Me," see Page 34.)

The film is part punch lines, part message and, aside from a few brief shots for local color (Ben's Chili Bowl, the Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue), pretty much filmed in Toronto. The filmmakers were here three days to get those exterior "establishing" shots, creating the illusion that events in "Talk to Me" are taking place in the nation's capital, but most of the action is interior -- WOL's and WDCA's re-created studios and some apartments. The riots after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. feel "back lot" and as much Washington as "Live Free or Die Hard."

At least Ben's Chili Bowl made the cut, albeit briefly.

For most filmmakers, whether they're doing quick reference shooting or spending a good deal of time and money in photogenic Washington (the upcoming "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," for instance), there are just a handful of must-film money shots. If you think about any Washington-centered film of the past 70 years, you probably know what they are: the Capitol, the White House and a Mall tableau featuring, collectively or individually, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument. Good long shots also include the Capitol (see Page 27).

Those iconic landmarks stand alone, uncluttered by other architecture, and, at night, are beautifully lit. They seem the work of very sharp Hollywood set designers and lighting directors, not Pierre L'Enfant, the city planner who actually envisioned those open vistas.

Crystal Palmer, director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and TV Development, says filmmakers are lured to Washington "with shots that have production value, which is why you see so many postcard locations reflected in films." It's rare when a Washington film doesn't rely on such "postcard shots." "Slam," "Broadcast News" and Georgetown-set "The Exorcist" and "St. Elmo's Fire" are exceptions.

Palmer says there are popular "non-postcard Washington" residential locations -- Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Adams Morgan -- "but basically what we sell is people's preconceived notion of what we are. When you show them something off the beaten path, typically it ends up on the cutting room floor. They come in specifically to show what the moviegoer expects."

As we look at a dozen of the best Washington-centered movies (we're excluding presidential biographies, documentaries and TV films), we recognize that some did extensive shooting in the city, opting for as much authenticity as they could afford and get permits for. Time and budget constraints led other filmmakers to shoot a few choice exteriors here and the rest elsewhere. If you pay attention to credits, you'll find Toronto is a favorite substitute for Washington, though certain states are called upon to provide Capitol doubles.

We've chosen films with Washington settings -- some real, some imagined -- that evoke the politics, geography and culture of the nation's capital. Historically, there have been hundreds of D.C.-centric films; we hope the ones we've picked match locations, settings and themes with powerful acting and excellent filmmaking.

The D.C. Dozen: 12 Films to Catch

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). This Frank Capra classic is probably the best known, possibly the most beloved film about Washington politics. Jimmy Stewart is naive, incorruptible small-town hero Jefferson Smith, who, after an inspirational tour of just about every Washington landmark, plunges into politics after being named to fill a suddenly vacant Senate seat -- only to find it's a cesspool of corruption. Thanks to his assistant (Jean Arthur), he regains his idealism on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, presaging his impassioned filibuster finale. Capra visited Washington briefly with writer Sidney Buchman and key cast members, securing specs and information about the Senate chamber so a full-scale replica could be built at Columbia Pictures' studios. That famous scene of Mr. Smith arriving at Union Station and taking an impromptu whirlwind tour of pretty much every major Washington site? Rear-projected on the Hollywood set. But Stewart was said to have been very moved by his visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

Did we say beloved (though also sometimes dismissed as hokey populist pablum)? That wasn't the initial reaction in some quarters. Joseph I. Breen, head of the National Legion of Decency and enforcer of the Hays Code censorship system set up by the Hollywood studios, opposed the film being made when story treatments were submitted in January 1938, warning, "It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large."

The Washington Press Club-sponsored world premiere at DAR Constitution Hall was attended by 250 House representatives, 45 senators, Supreme Court justices and members of the press, many of whom walked out as the film unspooled. Members of Congress were so infuriated (or embarrassed) by the film's portrayal of corrupt Washington politics, they considered a punitive bill against it. Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley (D-Ky.) called it "grotesque . . . silly and stupid," adding that it made the Senate look like "a bunch of crooks." The Washington press corps didn't like the way they were portrayed, either, and joined in attacks against Capra. Joseph P. Kennedy, American ambassador to England, urged Columbia not to release the picture in Europe.

Of course, everybody backed off when the film became a populist favorite.

"All the President's Men" (1976). Director Alan J. Pakula's dramatization of how The Washington Post's Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) uncovered White House involvement in the Watergate break-in, which eventually led to Richard Nixon's resignation. A fantastic film about politics and the media that pulls together multiple, complex strands into a real-world thriller. Great Washington presence and a meticulous re-creation of The Washington Post newsroom.

Woodward recently noted he had watched "All the President's Men" again two summers ago with his in-the-trenches colleagues Ben Bradlee and Bernstein. " 'For Christ's sakes, it's a typewriter, Quinn,' Bradlee said to his son when answering an inquiry at one point in the movie," Woodward said. "My 8-year-old daughter said the movie was 'boring, boring, boring.' I found it a good reminder of the importance of working at night. What percentage of the movie takes place at night? I suspect it is high. And, of course, the good information, the light, comes at night."

"The American President" (1995). Michael Douglas as the decent, widowed president who falls for Annette Bening, who just happens to be a lobbyist for an environmental alliance nagging his administration to get a bill passed. A hateful senator (Richard Dreyfuss) looses nasty rumors to create a major White House scandal and sabotage reelection. Smart, sharply written, richly detailed White House politics, the movie, directed by Rob Reiner, is writer Aaron Sorkin's blueprint for "The West Wing" television series.

No "postcard" Washington: "The Exorcist" features stone steps in Georgetown.(1980 Photo By John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
"The Exorcist " (1973). Featuring the most famous non-official Washington film location: the Victorian house next to the 97 stone steps leading from 3600 Prospect St. NW down to M Street, the ones Father Karras (Jason Miller) tossed himself down after repossessing the pea-soup-spitting demon residing in 12-year-old Linda Blair. Lots of Georgetown settings in William Friedkin's rendering of the horror classic by William Peter Blatty (Georgetown University class of 1950).

"Born Yesterday" (1950). George Cukor directed Judy Holliday to an Oscar as Billie Dawn, showgirl/mistress to a loud and corrupt tycoon (bruising Broderick Crawford) who brings her to Washington, where he seeks to bribe a congressman. He hires a savvy journalist (William Holden) to educate Billie to Washington society; after a visit to the Jefferson Memorial and reading the Washington Herald, she figures out how to do the right thing.

"Advise & Consent" (1962). When an ill president tries to appoint a controversial liberal/intellectual (Henry Fonda) secretary of state in a move toward rapprochement with the Soviet Union, it sparks a heated confirmation process, with fierce battles both between and within the majority and the minority parties (like Allen Drury's blockbuster novel, the film never uses Democrat or Republican). Great, and large, cast; convoluted dealmaking; and nasty, muckraking party politics that are seldom black-and-white but ambiguously gray -- it all feels very real and very Capitol Hill.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951). In Robert Wise's sci-fi classic, a spacecraft floats over federal landmarks and lands on the Ellipse carrying humanoid emissary Klaatu, giant metallic robot sidekick Gort and a message: world peace or obliteration! Military paranoia and miscommunication abound, offset by Klaatu's inspirational visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. In the context of the times (post-Hiroshima, start of the Cold War, dawn of the Space Age) the film has a clear anti-nuclear-weapons message, as well as a theremin-rich score by Bernard Herrmann.

A war room scene in
A war room scene in "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Philip Strub, the Pentagon's Hollywood liaison, says the real Pentagon command center is boring.(AFI Stills Collection)
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964). A Cold War black comedy released in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis: The president (one of Peter Sellers's three roles) tries to avert a nuclear disaster initiated by a crazed Air Force commander, though his chief counselors are a super-hawk general and an extremely eccentric ex-Nazi "mad scientist." Classic Pentagon war room scenes.

"Broadcast News" (1987). James L. Brooks's scathing look at the television news business observed through unrequited romances, power struggles and ego trips at the Washington bureau of a major network. One of the few films to pretty much avoid "postcard" Washington in favor of the everyday.

A Navy officer (Kevin Costner) sprints along Whitehurst Freeway in the 1987 thriller
A Navy officer (Kevin Costner) sprints along Whitehurst Freeway in the 1987 thriller "No Way Out," which also included "Pentagon" settings and a fictional Georgetown Metro stop.(Orion Pictures)
"No Way Out" (1987). Kevin Costner is a Navy lieutenant asked to solve the murder of Sean Young, mistress of the defense secretary (Gene Hackman). Complications and surprising plot twists ensue. Includes lots of "Pentagon" settings and a great chase on the Whitehurst Freeway and C&O Canal towpath into the . . . Georgetown Metro stop?

"Being There" (1979). Hal Ashby's adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's satirical novel follows an illiterate, simple-minded gardener (Peter Sellers) who has lived his entire life behind the walls of a Washington home with no contact with the outside world or social interaction, his only knowledge coming from watching television. After his protector dies and he's forced to leave that sheltered world, he's accidentally thrust into circles of wealth and political power, where his simplistic utterances (mostly about gardening) are mistaken for deep wisdom. Naturally, he becomes a presidential adviser, media celebrity and the toast of Washington society.

"Slam," a documentary-like film directed by Marc Levin, features Saul Williams as a poet from a rough Northeast Washington neighborhood and Sonja Sohn as a compassionate writing teacher.(© Off Line Entertainment/Photofest)
"Slam" (1998). Marc Levin's raw, documentary-like film features a young poet (Saul Williams) from a Northeast Washington "Dodge City" neighborhood sent to D.C. jail to await trial on a minor drug charge. His poetry, fiercely declaimed, proves a means of survival both in prison and on the street. Encouraged by a passionate, and compassionate, writing teacher (Sonja Sohn), he uses the power of the spoken word, rhythm and rhyme as a path to redemption and peacemaking.

This is an insider view of the African American experience in Washington that seldom shows up in films, and the few "postcard" shots tend toward harsh irony. Much of the action revolves around young black men in a perpetually tense D.C. jail, mixing actors and real-life cons and guards -- and former mayor Marion Barry as a judge. The poetry slam finale features many local poets and is the best representation of that culture on film.

More D.C. on Film

WASHINGTON DC TV AND MOVIE SITES Walking and bus tour of more than 30 locations from 50 movies and television shows. Saturdays at 2 from Union Station. $32, $15 ages 6 to 10. Advance purchase required at http://www.screentours.com/tour.php/dc. 212-683-2027.

BUS, CAMERA, ACTION! REEL WASHINGTON Monthly tour featuring more than 40 locations on a three-hour tour combining walking and bus, led by local actors. Aug. 11, Sept. 8 and Oct. 13 at 6:30. Departs from outside the Smithsonian Metro station (Independence Avenue exit). $30, $15 age 12 and younger. Advance purchase required at http://www.washingtonwalks.com. 800-979-3370 or 212-209-3370.

ON YOUR OWN At http://www.kittytours.org/dcmovies, you'll find entries for 200 movies made in and around Washington, including a complete list of locations appearing in each film. Its creators, Jean K. Rosales and Michael R. Jobe, also published "DC Goes to the Movies: A Unique Guide to the Reel Washington" (Writers Club Press, 2003), with eight location-focused neighborhood walking tours and a filmography that tells you the very second you can see each locale in a particular film. Sadly, both the Web site and book go to 2004 and have not been updated since.

Staff writer Richard Harrington watched several dozen Washington films in writing this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company