Filmmaker James L. Brooks gets Washington with 'How Do You Know'

James L. Brooks, left, and actor Jack Nicholson arrive at the premiere of Columbia Pictures' "How Do You Know" at the Regency Village Theatre on December 13, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
James L. Brooks, left, and actor Jack Nicholson arrive at the premiere of Columbia Pictures' "How Do You Know" at the Regency Village Theatre on December 13, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Kevin Winter - Getty Images)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:59 PM

It is a truth locally acknowledged that director James L. Brooks gets Washington.

Most filmmakers come, pan their camera a few times across the Mall, maybe blow up a police car or two, and then leave. And once again the nation's capital is reduced to either a cardboard cutout backdrop or the geographic equivalent of a Central Casting extra.

But some directors understand Washington from the inside out, most famously Alan Pakula in the 1976 Watergate thriller "All the President's Men." But next to that classic, it's Brooks's 1987 love-triangle comedy "Broadcast News" that is most often credited by Washingtonians as capturing the city's culture most authoritatively and subtly. In that film - a cultural watershed in its depiction of work, intimacy and journalism-as-entertainment - Brooks avoided the congressional walk-and-talks and iconic Mall scenes that serve as little more than set dressing to lend stories gravitas or political-thriller plot points.

After 20 years, Brooks has returned to D.C. with the love-triangle comedy "How Do You Know," starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson. The film, opening Friday, follows a softball player as she ages out of her lifelong sport and manages dueling romances with a baseball star and an embattled financier. And "How Do You Know" happens to be set in Washington, which the director casts once again as zeitgeist-signifier, metropolitan muse and supporting character in its own right.

Why, District denizens may well ask, does the New Jersey-raised L.A. resident have such an affinity for Washington? "It's the most beautiful city on Earth," Brooks said recently. "We start there."

Brooks's affection for Washington grew when he lived near the Naval Observatory while filming "Broadcast News," set in the frenetic scrum of the city's media culture. In a film that flawlessly captured D.C. tribal rituals as diverse as the White House Correspondents' Association dinner and a suburban Sunday brunch, the Jefferson Memorial wasn't a totemic backdrop for thoughtful speeches on the Constitution or ruminations on the Bill of Rights. It was the backdrop for Holly Hunter and William Hurt's first kiss.

The give-and-take between Washington and Hollywood has been well documented. (Altogether now: "Politics is show business for ugly people." We've heard it.) To paraphrase the famous observation about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, just as she gave him sex and he gave her class, Washington confers intellectual heft and policy-wonk seriousness to the celebrities who come here to lobby and advocate, just as they sprinkle otherwise drab bureaucrats and politicians with a little stardust and borrowed glamour.

Most movies approach Washington with the stock stiffness of "The Day the Earth Stood Still ," when a flying saucer passed all the familiar landmarks (Washington Monument? Check. Capitol? Check. Smithsonian? Check.) before landing on the Ellipse. But once in a while, filmmakers escape the edifice complex and deliver textured portraits of Washington as a living, breathing city. William Friedkin did it in "The Exorcist," where even in a story of wildly imagined horror, he captured the feeling of walking down a Georgetown street and wondering what really lies behind its well-tended doorsteps.

Billy Ray did it twice, in "Shattered Glass" and then again in "Breach," about FBI mole Robert Hanssen, in which Ray depicted life in the bureau not as endless feats of derring-do and dead drops, but in all its linoleum-tiled, windowless banality. More recently, Doug Liman captured both the messy home life of a typical two-career Washington couple and the faceless institutions they routinely navigate in "Fair Game," which toggles between Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson's cozily well-appointed Palisades home and scenes where the White House looms menacingly, a silent, impenetrable fortress of monolithic power.

"Broadcast News" and "How Do You Know" deserve pride of place on the (short) list of films that mine Washington not for its majesty or monumental iconography, but as a lived-in place. In Brooks's case, these oblique moments glow with the added enchantment of his own relationship to the city. Where some see monotony and blandness, when Mr. Brooks comes to Washington, he sees broad, inviting streets. Where some see Deep Throat in every parking garage, he sees a verdant mix of city and suburb, stately built environments and rolling parks. What some deride as entrenched bureaucracy, Brooks extols for its sense of stability and permanence other cities don't have.

With "How Do You Know," which takes place primarily in Logan Circle, Adams Morgan and the Bowen Building downtown, Brooks once again infuses Washington with his distinctive brand of romance. And again, he avoids the most predictable tropes and themes of Official Washington to nibble at its edges, in this case the world of professional sports and investment banking.

Rather than predictable shots of the Washington Monument or the Capitol, Brooks pays gratifying attention to the details of the city's street life, from the security badges the extras wear to a brief shot of commuters on Segways. In Brooks's enchanted D.C., even the city bus becomes an improbably lyrical deus ex machina.

If the legacy of "Broadcast News" was a new brand of heroine who personified the tough choices of 1980s feminism, "How Do You Know" presents us with an equally resonant leading man. As the new film opens, Rudd's character, financial services executive George Madison, is indicted for securities fraud. George makes a recognizable Washington figure, someone who may not inhabit the city's most visible corridors of power but whose life is vitally connected to them. As he somberly quotes recent legislation and fends off a loyal assistant's efforts to sneak him inside information, George makes an unlikely but meaningful hero, utterly of his time and place: the last honest man in Washington.

Although "How Do You Know" never explicitly invokes the financial meltdown, institutional failures and personal scandals of recent years, the upright, moral-to-a-fault George stands as both a victim and a rebuke to the very worst that the city has come to represent. He's a straight arrow in the world's most crooked quiver.

In "Broadcast News," Albert Brooks's virtuous if self-righteous schlub called Hurt's shallow, aggressively telegenic newsreader "the Devil." (The scene of the Devil manufacturing a tear on cue during an interview signaled the coming soft-news apocalypse.) There are no devils in "How Do You Know" as much as flawed individuals trying to heed their better angels. As they find their way through their own private Washington, they constantly question themselves and each other, second-guessing motives and declarations; even the screwball climax of "How Do You Know," set in a crowded room in a maternity ward, consists of characters giving each other notes on how to deliver a marriage proposal.

The scene is pure Hollywood artifice but disarmingly authentic because it's so crazy. For Brooks, "How Do You Know" is about "men and women . . . just crawling toward each other through the fog. With what we're getting battered with, it's just such a rough time."

Here's a theory: What keeps Brooks coming back to Washington, finally, isn't its intricate grid or stately environment, but the fact that it so ably serves a concern with personal ethics that has animated his work from "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News" through "I'll Do Anything" and "Spanglish." His recurring question is not How Do You Know? as much as How Do We Live?

Brooks's Washingtonians may not indulge in oratories about history and politics, but they struggle with governing principles all the same. Where better than Washington for Brooks to deliver yet another lesson in the civics of romance, where being a good citizen in love is as important as being a good citizen in life?

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