Conventional wisdom is that politics is poison at the box office. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from producing films about Washington. Two spheres of government activity are movie staples: the military and the intelligence services—soldiers and spies. And in recent decades especially, films featuring political figures and themes in the nation’s capital have proliferated.
As entertainment vehicles, movies drive with a certain license—getting viewers into theaters is the point, not a hidebound accuracy. Still, if you live here and see these films, you know how often they get basic things wrong, sometimes egregiously. Here are five of the biggest goofs in Washington movies, in no particular order.
1. No Way Out (1987)
Kevin Costner drives into Georgetown on the Whitehurst Freeway chased by two hit men. He cuts off their car, jumps over the freeway barrier, and is chased along K Street and the C&O Canal before ducking into a Metro station. The Metro post is marked GEORGETOWN—never mind that Georgetown has no subway stop. Inside, Costner jumps onto (whoops) a Baltimore subway train, only to later run up an escalator into Georgetown Park mall—no subway there, either.
2. The Contender (2000)
At the climax, the President (Jeff Bridges) calls a joint session of Congress, which only Congress can do. He then arrives in a House chamber the size of a grade-school auditorium and looks over his right shoulder to address “Mr. Speaker”—though the speaker is seated over the President’s left shoulder during a joint session. To cap it off, the President calls for a “live roll call” to confirm his vice-presidential candidate on the spot, an utterly unconstitutional procedure.
3. Being There (1979)
Peter Sellers, as Chance the gardener, wanders DC all day to end up at dusk on the median strip coming up from an underpass on North Capitol Street, with traffic whizzing by and the Capitol glimmering in the background. This is a place where it would be almost impossible for a pedestrian to tread, where only a madman or a simpleton (which Chance is) would venture—though it does make for a wonderfully symbolic depiction of a truly lost soul in an unforgiving capital city.
4. Protocol (1984)
Motorcades often appear in movies set here, but they sometimes follow routes no sensible driver would take. In this Goldie Hawn farce, the credit sequence shows a motorcade taking an Arab dignitary to the White House. Coming from an airport, the motorcade circles the Lincoln Memorial, goes past the Jefferson Memorial, doubles back past the Washington Monument, and ends up at the Treasury Building beside the White House. Unless the chauffeur was scouting for cherry blossoms, a more roundabout route could hardly be imagined.
5. North by Northwest (1959)
The importance of a Capitol shot in a Washington movie is well established. But even a master like Alfred Hitchcock can mess it up. In this classic thriller, the lone local sequence opens with a shiny refection of the Capitol in the nameplate of the “United States Intelligence Agency.” From the next shot, showing the Capitol’s West Front through a large picture window, it appears the agency is located on the Mall, not an ideal spot for a spy operation. Thirty-five years later, that shot gets a reprise in Forrest Gump (1994), when Forrest is being shown around the combined headquarters of Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. A full-frontal window view of the Capitol places those radical bastions in the middle of the Mall, too.
Mike Canning writes for the Hill Rag. His book, “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC,” was published in October.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.