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)
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)
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
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.