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Films set in Washington bear an unusual artistic burden.
Consider other big metropolises’ onscreen appearances. The California suburb where E.T. takes place could be a stand-in for any town in America. A movie set in New York doesn’t have to present a penetrating analysis of what it means to live in the Big Apple. James Bond rarely worries about British politics.
But when the aliens land in Washington, it’s usually the first step toward global annihilation. A romantic comedy set here has to involve at least one lobbyist, one member of Congress, and one service-industry professional. And every movie about the CIA offers some opinion on Washington dysfunction: In Argo, for instance, spies have to go to Hollywood for a good idea on how to break into and out of Iran.
Most lists of best Washington movies include films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Exorcist, All the President’s Men, A Few Good Men, and Independence Day. All are classics in their own regard, but for the most part, they have little regard for the fact that there’s an actual city worth considering beyond the White House gates and the Capitol’s cast-iron dome. To put it more bluntly, most round-ups of “Washington movies” are actually political or military movies, and they’re usually ranked according to their artistic merit.
This project seeks to do the opposite. Washingtonian wants to find the most Washington movie ever. Not the best Washington movie, mind you: This is not about cinematic quality; it is a test of “Washington-ness.” So we’ve cobbled together a seeded bracket of 64 movies set in Washington, and in the coming weeks, you’ll vote on them until there is an undisputed champion for “Most Washington Movie Ever.” The films mentioned above are included, but so are pictures less focused on federal Washington, like D.C. Cab, Remember the Titans, and St. Elmo’s Fire.
Many of these 64 films were critically lauded when they were released, some are duds that matured over time, and still others will never be any good. But all of them say something about the Washington condition. Take Die Hard 2: On its surface, it’s a inferior follow-up to John McClane’s adventure in Los Angeles, but at its core, it’s just a story about how frustrating it can be to wait for someone to land at Dulles. No Way Out might be a thriller from the bygone Cold War era, but it persists even today as a favorite talking point of DC Council member Jack Evans. (Evand remains irate that when Kevin Costner’s character ran into a fictitious Georgetown Park Metro station, the filmmakers used the Baltimore Metro.)
To begin, the selected movies have been grouped into four quadrants, each of which are organized around a familiar “Washington movie” trope. There are tales of US Presidents, both fictional and fictionalized; films starring characters who come to Washington as wide-eyed naifs and leave as jaded cynics; stories built around criminal schemes and long cons; and, everyone’s favorite, the movies that wreak artificial destruction on our iconic skyline.
You’ll get a chance to vote first on a group of films that reflect Hollywood’s many approaches to the White House and its occupants. Don’t vote for the movies you think should have won the most Academy Awards: Vote for those that make our city most recognizible.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Illustration and bracket by Brooke Hatfield.