Washington, DC movies: Beyond politics

Most Hollywood directors don't know it, but there's more to the capital than politics and monuments

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Ever since a young Confederate family went up to the capital to meet Abe Lincoln in D.W. Griffith's 1915 racism-fest The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has been very much in love with DC. But it's a one-sided affair: Washingtonians accuse Hollywood of misrepresenting their city, as directors swoop in to film a few mood-setting shots of political landmarks before decamping to an LA studio. While few DC movies manage to avoid politics altogether, some branch out beyond the White House into less familiar locations. Read on as we explore the overlooked corners of the District in ten movies.

  • The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)


     The Georgetown Steps © Lenka Reznicek

    The most famous apolitical scene in any DC movie hardly counts as an appearance. After unfolding largely within the confines of devil girl Reagan’s bedroom, this most claustrophobic of films ends with Jesuit priest Karras’s precipitous tumble down a flight of 97 steps. Unremarkable except for their sheer steepness, the stairs could be anywhere; as it happens, they’re located on M Street NW in Georgetown. Local joggers run up them to get their morning “exorcise.”

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  • Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962)


     Tregaron Conservancy

    “Any bitch with a million dollars, a big house and a good caterer can be a social success in Washington,” notes acerbic socialite Dolly (Gene Tierney) in Otto Preminger’s biting study of DC’s upper classes. When Preminger asked well-heeled locals to serve as extras for a party scene set in the Tregaron estate, the stage-struck socialites agreed without a second thought. In the event, the punishing shoot—which mainly involved Preminger barking orders down a megaphone in sweltering heat—disabused them of their notions of Hollywood glamor. Our advice? They shouldn’t have consented.

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  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)


     Smithsonian Castle

    Washington, DC, the beating heart of the nation (and so, for Americans, the world), is naturally a prime target for aliens looking to do politics. So it’s no accident that over the years the city has become inextricably associated with sci-fi films—one of the most entertaining (if least convincing) of which is Robert Wise’s classic humanoid romp. The opening scenes of the spaceship’s arrival offer commanding shots of the Smithsonian Castle and environs.

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  • In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993)


     Old Ebbitt Grill © Worn Creative

    True to its name, the Old Ebbitt Grill has been around since before cinema was born—heck, it’s even older than Clint Eastwood. As a grizzled Secret Service agent, Eastwood repairs to the bar to drink and mull over past failures in Wolfgang Petersen’s atmospheric political thriller. Everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to (ahem) Franz Ferdinand have paid the restaurant a visit over the decades, but only Clint’s is commemorated by a plaque.

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  • Houseboat (Melville Shavelson, 1958)


     Piscataway Creek © Virginia Hill

    Today, this lacklustre family frolic is probably best remembered by the older residents of the Potomac communities where it was shot half a century ago. Locals recall Sophia Loren strolling through town, dismissing flocks of star-struck fans with a flick of her hand as a smitten Cary Grant ran after her. If that sounds entertaining, be warned that the film isn’t—although it does show off Piscataway Creek in some rather fetching establishing shots.

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  • Body of Lies (Ridley Scott, 2008)


     Eastern Market

    The lies in this film extend to the use of locations. Islamic extremists under the watch of CIA man Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) detonate a car bomb in a crowded “Amsterdam” flower market; but eagle-eyed District-dwellers know DC's Eastern Market when they see it. To add to the confusion (and the coat-wearing cast's discomfort), the scene, set in winter, was shot at the height of summer. Just about the only thing that's real is the explosion itself.

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  • Slam (Marc Levin, 1998)


     Central Detention Facility

    This story of a young African American drug dealer and aspiring poet shows the viewer a side of DC that most its citizens will never see: the inside of a jail (specifically the Central Detention Facility). After being unfairly imprisoned, our man Ray more or less raps his way out of prison and toward an uncertain future. Shot on location in nine days by former documentary filmmaker Marc Levin, Slam bristles with authenticity at every turn, and remains a must-see of the city’s cinema.

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  • Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)


     The Willard InterContinental © Booking.com

    There was a time when the creepiest organization Tom Cruise belonged to was a fictional one. In this satisfyingly meaty sci-fi thriller set in 2054, he plays a leading member of the government’s sinister PreCrime force, whose role is to anticipate murders and pre-emptively arrest the future perpetrators (so much for the presumption of innocence). Cue glossy shots of random DC locales, including the Ronald Reagan Trade Building, the Willard InterContinental and the GAP store on Wisconsin Avenue. Good to know we’ll still be able to buy reasonably priced khaki shorts fifty years hence.

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  • No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1987)


     Chesapeake & Ohio Canal © Movie Tourist

    This gripping update of John Farrow’s The Big Clock weaves basic thriller elements—a love triangle, a homicide—into a gripping web of danger, paranoia and parallel duplicities. The main characters spend a good chunk of the running time running around, allowing director Donaldson to go to town on DC topography. Pedantic Washingtonians point out that the Georgetown Metro station that appears at the end of a chase scene along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal doesn’t actually exist; Georgetown residents argue that it should, and they're making themselves heard.

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  • Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)


     Downtown DC © Movie Tourist

    In tune with Peter Sellers' touchingly restrained performance (and second to last ever role), the use of DC locations in Being There is unshowy but wholly memorable. When his benefactor dies, simple-minded gardener Chance (Sellers) leaves his home for the first time for an aimless amble around Downtown. The result is a precious snapshot of the area in the pre-Starbucks age.

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The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)


 The Georgetown Steps © Lenka Reznicek

The most famous apolitical scene in any DC movie hardly counts as an appearance. After unfolding largely within the confines of devil girl Reagan’s bedroom, this most claustrophobic of films ends with Jesuit priest Karras’s precipitous tumble down a flight of 97 steps. Unremarkable except for their sheer steepness, the stairs could be anywhere; as it happens, they’re located on M Street NW in Georgetown. Local joggers run up them to get their morning “exorcise.”

SEE MORE


Users say

1 comments
Andrew B
Andrew B

One glaring omission: DC Cab

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