News & Politics

FBI Short Film Passes Off DC’s Chinatown as Shanghai

The FBI produced a cringe-inducing video to remind American college students not to become enemy spies while they study abroad.

Not exactly Seventh and H streets, NW. Photograph by Fotokon via Shutterstock.

Local film and television buffs can grumble endlessly about how all those movies and series set in Washington are actually filmed in other cities, but today, DC can join the ranks of cities portraying other cities on film, thanks to a new short film that presents DC’s Chinatown as Shanghai. And it’s produced by the FBI.

The bureau released the 28-minute video on Monday as a way to warn all those US college students studying abroad for the summer that they should avoid getting tangled up by foreign espionage operations. The film, Game of Pawns, retells the case of Glenn Duffie Shriver, a college student from Michigan who is now in the middle of a four-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to taking $70,000 from Chinese operatives in exchange for attempting to enter the US Foreign Service and the CIA. (Shriver’s involvement with Chinese intelligence was examined in the June 2012 issue of Washingtonian.)

Game of Pawns picks up on Shriver during his time studying in Shanghai, where he learned Mandarin and came down with the local equivalent of Stendhal syndrome. But, just as Homeland isn’t shot in DC, the production company hired by the FBI didn’t go to China. Instead, Northern Virginia-based Rocket Media put the actors playing Shriver and his friends under the Friendship Archway at Seventh and H streets, NW. (The Metro entrance and neon AT&T sign are blurred, but still visible in the background.)

The script isn’t much better, but it does contain a few gems like the names of the Chinese agents who flip Shriver—Messrs. “Wu” and “Tang”—and friendly US Customs agents who make jokes about the Detroit Lions. The dialogue is pretty clichéd, too, like an early scene at a bar in which Shriver’s friend whips out a credit card and says, “It’s for emergencies, and I think this qualifies.”

To which, the actor playing Shriver replies, “Awe-sooooome!”

The best part of Game of Pawns actually comes during the end credits, which feature talking-head clips by the actual Shriver, who is serving out his setence at a federal prison in Ohio.

Rocket Films specializes in making videos for the government, so it’s probably not going to churn out content with crackling dialogue and extensive, on-location shoots, but it did get to film at CIA headquarters and get some fancy helicopter shots. There’s also a lot of that J.J. Abrams-style lens-flaring. Still, unless the FBI is slapping this video in front of big-time fare like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the upcoming Godzilla remake, it seems unlikely it will be widely viewed by American college students. Also, that title: Game of Pawns clearly winks toward a popular medieval fantasy series, but come on, “pawns” doesn’t even rhyme with “thrones.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.