News & Politics

Oscar Goes to Washington

Set here or not, a number of recent top films, including some Academy Award nominees, can be traced to Washington gumshoes, blackguards, and bureaucrats. Spoilers ahead.

Some Washington figures, such as the characters in Gravity (above) and American Hustle (below) are only vaguely reminiscent of their real-life counterparts. Photograph of Gravity courtesy of the Everett Collection.

Gravity. Despite its departures from fact, Discover magazine’s Corey Powell says George Clooney and Sandra Bullock’s characters have “definite resonance” with astronauts Mike Massimino and Megan McArthur, who spacewalked to fix the Hubble telescope. “Massimino had that swagger,” Powell says. “And because it was McArthur’s first mission, there was a protective attitude toward her.” But the film’s real stars, he says, are at the Air and Space Museum, where “a lot of fragments that went into the movie are scattered.”

Dallas Buyers Club. As Ron Woodroof, an HIV-positive Texas electrician, Matthew McConaughey denounces the FDA’s favored AIDS drug in the 1980s, AZT. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says Woodroof was right: The drug wasn’t effective on its own. But Fauci notes that the FDA eventually came up with a better remedy, and he defends the agency’s effort to save lives. AZT, Fauci says, “was the only drug we had.”

The Monuments Men. As so many Washington efforts do, the events portrayed in the movie started as a commission, created by President Franklin Roosevelt to find a way to spare cultural artifacts in the path of World War II. George Clooney’s Frank Stokes, an Army lieutenant in charge of art experts, is based on George Leslie Stout, but it was chief justice (and National Gallery trustee) Harlan Stone who prevailed upon the President, not Stout, as the movie has it.

Other local connections, such as the Yellow House in 12 Years a Slave, have been erased by history. Photograph courtesy of the Everett Collection.

12 Years A Slave. Upon waking one day in Washington, the movie’s hero, Solomon Northup,finds himself in a dungeon underneath the so-called Yellow House—a.k.a. 800 Independence Avenue, Southwest, now the site of the Federal Aviation Administration. A slave trader in the film and in real life, James Birch, owned a booming slave operation at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria, today the Freedom House Museum.

Philomena. Though the title character travels to Washington looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption—Michael Hess, a real-life lawyer for the RNC who lived with his partner in the Wyoming, a building in DC’s Kalorama—the actual Philomena never sought him in DC; it was Hess who traveled to his birthplace in Ireland looking for her, which the movie does note.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The watchful White House steward played by Forest Whitaker takes his story from that of Eugene Allen, a Scottsville, Virginia, native who served in the executive mansion as Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, attended a state dinner as the Reagans’ guest, and celebrated at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

American Hustle. “Some of this actually happened,” says the film’s opening title card. That “some” includes the six congressmen and one senator videotaped by the FBI accepting bribes, most at a rented house on Georgetown’s W Street, in a late-’70s anticorruption operation known as Abscam.

Photograph from American Hustle courtesy of the Everett Collection.

This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.