"Where's that restaurant?" asked my friend as we watched "No Way Out," the new movie set in Washington. We were watching it in New York. My friend, a former Washingtonian, and I, a current Washingtonian, had thought it would be particular fun on that hot Sunday afternoon to see a movie about Washington. "Where's that restaurant?" my friend asked. "Nowhere," I said. "It's only in the movie."
In fact, the Washington in the movie exists only in the movie. In the restaurant that so puzzled my friend, diners had a panoramic view of the Mall. The secretary of defense was there, and so was the chairman of what is supposed to be the Senate Armed Services Committee. Behind them loomed the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Trouble is, such a restaurant does not exist. It would have to be on the Mall itself -- and it isn't.
A Washingtonian would find "No Way Out" no less than baffling. Kevin Costner, the hero, takes his lady friend out for a drive. He tools along in a spiffy and expensive sports car. I recognize the road they're taking; it seems to be the George Washington Parkway, and I guess, based on my intimate knowledge of the area, that they are heading for the Virginia mountains. But the car takes an exit, and, lo and behold, they are in Annapolis. I covered the State House there for three years and made the drive to Annapolis almost daily. Never once did I go there by making a right turn at Turkey Run.
Is this Washington? Maybe in Duluth it looks like Washington. But in Washington it ain't Washington. For one thing, the entire action of the movie takes place in the summer and not once does anyone complain about the heat. The air and the sky have the kind of dry sparkle that Washingtonians see only in films made on the West Coast. There are abundant parking spaces, and everyone has a limousine. The secretary of defense even sends one to pick up his mistress. Preposterous! Hasn't Hollywood ever heard of Sen. William Proxmire?
As a Washingtonian, I look forward to movies set in my city. It's a dramatically photogenic town, and I get a sort of owner's pleasure in imagining how the city looks to people elsewhere. But the real fun for me is to recognize places -- to sometimes know precisely what street the actors are on and to anticipate where they are going. In "No Way Out," though, the more you know about Washington the less you know about what's going to happen next. Hollywood dropped the city into a Cuisinart.
In one scene, Costner is being chased by two bad guys. They follow him up onto the Whitehurst Freeway, which, unaccountably, has all its lanes open and none of them under repair. Costner abandons his car. He runs toward downtown. But suddenly he's on the canal towpath. Then, running the wrong way, he inexplicably appears at Georgetown Park, dashes down the escalator and emerges -- where? -- in the Georgetown Metro station! Trouble is, there is no Georgetown Metro station, but that's all right because the train he hops is not one of Metro's. That scene was shot in a different city altogether.
Once, in my carefree youth, I was hired to be the Washington consultant for a Hollywood film. I looked at the script. All senators had limousines. Their Capitol Hill offices were palatial -- huge affairs like rooms in Versailles. The script called for an orgy on the Metroliner to New York (senators and their non-typing ladies) and a Georgetown party that turned into a brawl. I cleared my throat. I hemmed, I hawed, and finally I said, "That's not the way it is." To the credit of the producers and at the insistence of the star (Alan Alda), the script was cleaned up. In fact, Alda visited a Senate office to see things for himself. The palace of the script became the slum of the movie.
But most Hollywood films about Washington are hardly so punctilious. The Washington they show is not the city on the Potomac but the one in the silly heads of movie makers. Monuments get moved around willy-nilly, the city's geography gets jumbled, politicians are often depicted as venal nincompoops, and the impossible is depicted as routine. In "No Way Out," the Pentagon is searched top to bottom, in a couple of hours. Yuk, yuk -- and this is not supposed to be a comedy.
I liked "No Way Out." It's a movie-movie -- popcorn for the eyes. It's fast-paced, exciting and as long as you give the story no thought whatsoever, it's fun entertainment. But mostly I liked the city where it's set. Someday -- knock on wood -- I'd like to live there. I wonder where it is?