Nonpolitical D.C.: 13 Movies to Check Out

Jason Dick
Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:20pm

Politics is such a part of the lifeblood of Washington, D.C., that sometimes people forget there is a city beyond the Capitol Dome and White House.

The annual Hollywood and Washington power tryst known as the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner demonstrates the close relationship between the entertainment and political capitals. Sometimes lost in the shuffle, though, are Hollywood’s depictions of Washington as a living city, not just a nexus of power.

Thanks to recent films including “Zero Dark Thirty,” new series such as “House of Cards” and the enduring legacy of movies such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “All The President’s Men,” Americans see official Washington writ large. The Bipartisan Policy Center hosted a forum on the Hollywood-Washington connection earlier this month, and Hill Rag film critic Mike Canning has penned a new book, “Hollywood on the Potomac,” that traces the movies’ treatment of Washington.

But filmmakers have also turned their cameras to the city’s less-heralded aspects: cabbies, young professionals, poets, socialites. Here’s a baker’s dozen of movies that show the city beyond the capital, the urban experience beyond the corridors of power.

1. Broadcast News (1987): Leave it to a media outlet to glamorize a movie about the media. But James L. Brooks gets it right in his depiction of television journalists trying to get ahead in a buzzy city with snake-pit vibes. Albert Brooks’ sweaty turn in the anchor’s seat is every reporter’s worst nightmare when preparing for another television hit.

2. Chances Are (1989): A dead man returns to D.C. as a younger man whose life becomes entwined with the family he left behind. Georgetown is at its most charming, a place that lends itself to long strolls along the C&O towpath and cobblestone streets.

3. D.C. Cab (1983): Pity the fools who miss the adventures of Mr. T, Adam Baldwin and Bill Maher and their shaggy-dog cab company. This celebration of D.C.’s blue-collar set is silly, but it shows off indelible parts of the city, such as the landmark Florida Avenue Grill, illustrates the dinginess of downtown (hard to believe now) and ends it all with a parade past the seat of District government, the John A. Wilson Building.

4. The Exorcist (1973): The poster for this seminal horror film is a chilling slice of D.C.: Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin bathed in streetlight before the Georgetown abode of the MacNeil family, whose possessed daughter wreaks havoc within. The dark tone is well-suited to Georgetown’s shadowy nighttime feel. And the steps that lead to the house from M Street Northwest are known colloquially as “the Exorcist Steps” — a stark, steep reminder of the movie’s rough ending.

5. Good to Go (1986): Art Garfunkel, of all people, plays a reporter framed for murder who tries to clear his name. He does so amid D.C.’s go-go scene. An almost-impossible-to-find movie that features the holy trinity of go-go: Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Trouble Funk and E.U.

6. Houseboat (1958): A romantic comedy with two of the most suave actors of the post-World War II era: Cary Grant and Sophia Loren.

7. How Do You Know (2010): A movie that’s a kind of coming out for the Washington Nationals, who only arrived in 2005 but quickly became a part of the fabric of the city. Owen Wilson is a relief pitcher Lothario who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Reese Witherspoon. Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson play a father-son business team.

8. The Last Detail (1973): Not a Washington movie per se, but a road movie with a stop-over in a gritty, wintry D.C. Two Navy lifers, Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, have to escort Randy Quaid to a Naval prison. They show him a good time en route, and their odyssey takes them into the seedy underbelly of the Northeast Corridor.

9. St. Elmo’s Fire (1985): Georgetown’s party side gets the Brat Pack treatment, as Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and other 1980s young stars play recent Hoya grads adjusting to post-college life. A pre-“Big Chill” for Generation X.

10. Shattered Glass (2003): This covers a dark chapter of Washington journalism, the plagiarism episode perpetuated at “The New Republic” by Stephen Glass. It’s a film, ultimately, about fact-checking, but the script, direction and acting deftly demonstrate how D.C.’s low-wage young strivers can have their idealism drowned in a pressure-filled cubicle. The movie’s portrayal of TNR editors Michael Kelly and Charles Lane, played by Hank Azaria and Peter Sarsgaard, respectively, was spot on. Kelly was killed in Iraq a few months before the release, lending an outside poignancy to the film for his colleagues.

11. Slam (1998): A low-level criminal gets busted but finds solace in expressing himself through hip-hop and poetry. Raw settings in the D.C. jail and its surrounding neighborhoods show a world that, while only a couple of miles from the Capitol complex, is culturally far, far away.

12. Talk to Me (2007): Local D.C. news and affairs get a close-up in the story of ex-con-turned-talk show host Petey Greene, played by Don Cheadle, and his beleaguered producer, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor.) The 1960s and 1970s backdrop shows the rise of D.C. political activism and the birth of Chocolate City.

13. The Walker (2007): Woody Harrelson plays Carter Page III, a platonic escort to older, socialite women, all the wives of powerful men. The man paid to be good company finds himself in a bind when he lies for one of the women who finds herself in a compromised position. An interesting look at the salons of Washington, and a rare treatment of D.C.’s gay community.