Hollywood Zooms Its Lens On Washington, But Does Tinseltown Get It Right?

With political films capturing prestigious honors at the Oscars on Sunday, Hollywood showed that Washington is a ripe source for entertainment. Real historical events are the subject of Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, and Lincoln, proving that Americans are interested in stories about their government whether set in the 1860s, the 1970s, or today.  

American politics in general (and the presidency in particular) seem to be a limitless source of inspiration for storytellers. The presidency itself is depicted so much in fictional media that Wikipedia had to dedicate six separate lists to it!

And Washington’s appeal goes beyond dramatic Oscar bait. This year we’ll have not one but two action films where the White House is attacked and Secret Service agents have to rescue the president, with Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. We also now have a sitcom based in the White House, with 1600 Penn, though we’ll see if fictional politicians can cause as much comedy as real ones. (Or a blogger making a fairly obvious joke about politicians.)

Injecting the president into a story instantly ups the stakes, because any threat to him is a threat to the free world. Moreover the presidency gives a film something anyone can identify with because the office is so prominent.  

Of course unnecessarily inserting the president into a story can be distracting and unrealistic. On the TV show 24, the president was on the phone with field agents during a time of crisis about, oh, once every hour.

Obviously realism isn’t the goal for a lot of movies or TV shows, depending on the tone they’re trying to strike, but as a native Washingtonian, I kind of grit my teeth when Hollywood portrays the city and its denizens inauthentically or inaccurately, such as:

  • Filming scenes on streets so wide they couldn’t possibly be in DC, like in every episode of Bones I’ve ever seen (which is obviously filmed in Los Angeles).
  • Filling background shots with Washington landmarks from angles that do not exist. You can’t see the Capitol perfectly from every window in the city … or really any window, thanks to the Building Heights Act. But not according to this episode of Lie to Me:

  • Showing the president alone at any time ever, like in Dave when the title character sneaks off on a date with Sigourney Weaver. (You can watch it here; it’s charming but completely implausible to think the POTUS gets any privacy at all.)

Now of course I realize that the purpose of a movie or TV show is to entertain and not inform. Doctors roll their eyes at doctor shows; cops roll their eyes at cop shows. Of course people in politics are going to scoff at political shows too.

But if you want a good, authentic comedy about life in Washington, let me suggest Thank You For Smoking. For a realistic depiction of covert affairs, watch Charlie Wilson’s War, where the main characters are so far down the totem pole they never even speak to the president. And for a charming spoof of life in DC, check out this Perfect Strangers homage: