Washington -- that colony of workaholics surrounded by America -- who understands it?
What does the rest of the country make of us? What does Hollywood think? Nobody understands Hollywood either, but it is after all a sort of prematurely opened time capsule of America. Hollywood's concept of Washington reveals interesting things about Washington, and even more interesting things about pop America.
All this month the American Film Institute is presenting a blitz of movies about Washington, ranging from jittery old newsreels of McKinley to "All the President's Men." It says a lot.
The basic problem here is: How do you make a picture of power? For power, nuts-and-bolts political tactics, is what Washington is about. That isn't much to look at: a bunch of middle-aged white men sitting in a chamber. A murmured dialogue at a rocking party. Papers. Lots of papers, legal-length, in plastic folders and breat pockets and fat briefcases.
A documentary filmmaker once set out to capture Washington, wound up with two miles of film on committee hearings, speeches, and people being met at airports. The filmmaker pronounced Washington dull and quit.
But the fact is, of course, political power -- the manipulation of people and nations -- is enormously interesting, as fascinating, magnetic and frightening as the ones who have it. And aren't movies a manipulation too? Is this the connection between our Baghdad East and our Baghdad West?
It's easy to laugh at a bad movie. "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (after "Davy Crockett," May 24 at 5:30 and May 25 at 8:30) is so bad it's hilarious, with saucers crashing into the Monument and the Capitol, and at the height of the excitement, while the world is collapsing, the world's leading scientists meeting in a lab -- and what do they do? For three solid minutes they introduce each other. "Dr. Smith, this is Prof. Jones, etc."
But power can be filmed. Partly, the answer has to do with technique: suspense, foreshadowing, all those textbook basics. "Advise and Consent" (May 16 at 8:45) tries to dramatize what C. P. Snow called the corridors of power, and almost succeeds. The difficulty is that villains and heroes are people, specific, unique, but power is an abstraction.
We do have people in Washington who manage to be abstractions, and you see them in "The President's Analyst" (May 27 at 6:30), but there they are blamed on the telephone company.
Washington novelist Ward Just once observed that the Great Washington Novel will concentrate, not on the big scene, Congress and presidents, but on the periphery. This may be why "All the President's Men" (May 29 at 9, May 31 at 6) works so well.
There are many peripheral Washington movies in the series: "Watch on the Rhine" tonight at 6:30, which could happen in New York just as well as not: "Without Love" and "Houseboat" this Saturday at 8, Sunday at 7:30); "The Other Side of Midnight" (May 14 at 8:30); "Damn Yankees" (May 16 at 6:30, May 17 at 8:15); "Kisses for My President" (May 17 at 6), about a male first lady; "The Exorcist" (May 17 at 10:30, May 18 at 6:45); "Sherlock Holmes in Washington" (May 22 at 6:45), which places the Capitol next door to the Monument, and others.
There are also many that cover specific aspects of government, from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (May 21 at 6:30 and May 23 at 9:30) to the sadly faded "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" (May 15 at 6:30).
And there are those curiosites of history like "My Son John" (May 29 at 6:30).
If Joe McCarthy directed films, this would be his masterpiece. Made in 1952 by the once-admired Leo McCarey, it is, as AFI theater director Michael Clark notes, "truly a jaw-dropping motion picture," wherein we learn that if a man has a key to a woman's apartment, and the woman is exposed as a Communist, then the man must also be one. The picture demonstrates all too well the danger in "seeing is believing."
A bright spot in the series is "Hollywood on the Potomac" (May 19 at 6:30), put together by UDC media specialist Raoul Kulberg. We see films of the capital dating from 1897 to a 1979 thriller about blacks and drugs that shows a very different Washington.
Interesting insight: Before the age of mass air travel, beginning in the late '50s, Union Station was a mecca, one of the busiest places in the world. lThe older fiction films invariably throw in a shot or two of the familiar classic Daniel Burnham pile.
This "Capital Capers" series offers many other delights, not the least of them a charming double bill of "Born Yesterday" and "The More the Merrier" (May 30 and 31 at 8:30): and the prescient, strange combination, "Gabriel Over the White House" and "The President Vanishes" (May 26 at 7:45). All of them tell us something about how Americans view their capital city and what they think of it.
Just don't expect it's going to help you understand the place.