Quiz: White House Movies

Posted on June 26, 2013 at 3:59 pm

The third movie of the year featuring an attack on the White House opens this week.  How many of these films featuring 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue do you know?

1. Jeff Bridges plays a President with a taste for sandwiches.

2. Jack Nicholson plays two roles in a movie that has aliens in the White House.

3. A look-alike takes over for the President but does not fool the First Lady.

4. This tense drama is the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

5. A widowed President dates a beautiful lobbyist.

6. A murder takes place in the White House and Wesley Snipes is called in to investigate.

7.  Name three movies with African-American Presidents.

8. Name two movies about the President’s children.

9. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for this portrayal of a President with many scenes in the residence of the White House.

10. Teenage girls get jobs in the White House in the midst of the Watergate era.

For detailed information about the accuracy of White House portrayals on screen, see the White House Museum website.

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Interview: Mike Canning of Hollywood on the Potomac

Posted on June 22, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Kisses_for_My_President_-_1964_-_PosterMike Canning generously took the time to answer my questions about his marvelous book, Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC. It is a comprehensive and completely fascinating discussion of more than 50 movies set in Washington, from the silly to the serious, with comedy, romance, drama, and of course a lot of politics.  This week’s release of “White House Down” is a good reminder to check out some of these other films.  In addition to the ones he mentions, I’d suggest “Without Love” (Tracy and Hepburn decide to have a loveless marriage in WWII-era Washington) and “Houseboat” (widower Cary Grant hires Sophia Loren as a nanny).

What’s your favorite Washington movie?

My view combines part of “favorite” and “best.”  It’s “All the President’s Men” (1976) both because it was, and all the president's menremains, a completely engrossing suspense film plus it is rigorous in both sticking to the real events of the Watergate cover-up and using actual Washington locations.  I still love “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) because it is an absolute classic and “Being There” for its singular, sardonic look at our politics, but “All the President’s Men” leads the list.

Which Washington movies have the most outrageous mistakes?

I highlight a couple in my book: “No Way Out” (1987) because of its corkscrew chase sequence where lead Kevin Costner tries to escape two hit men by dropping off the Whitehurst Freeway, sprinting along the C & O Canal, only to run into the “Georgetown” subway stop—which, most famously, has never existed.  Once inside the station, he jumps on to the Baltimore subway, only to emerge into the Old Post Office Pavilion—where there is no subway either!  Another multiple-abuser of DC occurs at the end of “The Contender” (2000).  President Jeff Bridges, eager to name his new vice president (Joan Allen), “calls” a joint session of Congress (oops, it’s the other way around), misidentifies the Speaker and the president of the Senate in their chairs, and then calls for “an immediate roll call” to confirm his nominee (whatever happened to separation of powers?).  He performs these egregious acts in a painfully small House chamber with visible windows (it’s actually the Virginia State House).

How does the portrayal of Washington change over the decades?

The principal way it has changed physically is that mounting security concerns have restricted more and more the access to some major iconic sites, such as the Capitol building.  In the early post-war years, access to the Capitol and the legislative office buildings was ample, but security concerns gradually limited location shooting in and around the Capitol to where now commercial filmmakers can only shoot blocks in front and back of the building. That’s why, since the 1980’s, so many movies have scenes at the Grant Memorial in front of the Capitol’s reflecting pool—it’s as close as productions can get.  Access to other monuments (like the Lincoln Memorial) has also been limited.  One location exception is the use of the Metro system.  Since the Metro began in 1976, access to shooting was confined to entrances to stations, never down inside.  That limitation was lifted in 2007, and some recent Hollywood films (like “State of Play”—2009) have been allowed to shoot down the escalators and on to the station floor. 

As far as how the portrayal of Washington has changed in thematic terms, I would say that, while commercial cinema has almost always treated politicians (executives or congressional) negatively, the cynicism about politics has escalated over the years,  Politicians in films of the 1940’s and 1950’s (perhaps reflecting the national mood) were relatively benign figures, but, since the 1960’s and onward, their depiction (esp. in Congress) almost universally treats them as either simple-minded or venal.  Many, perhaps most, Washington-themed movies feature political themes and characters, and the predominant spirit for years has been a depressing sourness about all things political, even more so since the 1990’s.

To note: what rarely appears anywhere in current DC films is any representation of how real politicians work or how regular citizens of the city live.

Who are some of the biggest stars who actually filmed on location in Washington?

Clint Eastwood comes immediately to mind.  He has made three significant DC movies, “In the Line of Fire” (1993) in which he starred as a Secret Service agent, and two films he directed, “Absolute Power” (1997) and “J. Edgar” (2011).  Eddie Murphy was a mega-star when he made “The Distinguished Gentleman” (1992), as was Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies” (1994), Michael Douglas in “The American President” (1995), and Will Smith in “Enemy of the People” (1998).  Denzel Washington has appeared in several Washington-themed movies (“Pelican Brief” – 1993), “Courage Under Fire” – 1995) and “The Manchurian Candidate” – 2005)) and Tom Hanks in two, at each end of his career: “The Man with One Red Shoe” (1985) and “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007). Tom Cruise has two DC movies under his belt, “Minority Report” (2002) and “Lions for Lambs” (2007). 

In earlier times, major stars included Cary Grant (“Houseboat”- 1958), Kirk Douglas (“Seven Days in May” – 1964), Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (“All the President’s Men”), and Peter Sellers (“Being There”). 

Other than the White House, Capitol Building, and the monuments, what are some popular DC locations that show up in movies?

Certain thoroughfares that regularly allow location shooting are persistent in Washington movies, such as Pennsylvania Avenue (also because it lines up with the Capitol) Memorial Bridge, and the National Mall.  There are a few stand-in sites, like the DAR building and the Mellon Auditorium of the Smithsonian, which are used because access cannot be gained to more prominent locations.  Identifiable and picturesque neighborhoods also figure often, such as Georgetown and Capitol Hill, while many others are ignored.  As noted above,  the Grant Memorial—because it has become the western boundary on shooting the Capitol—features surprisingly often in Washington movies.

The fact remains that there are many lesser-known DC locations that could enhance Hollywood stories that are never or rarely used because filmmakers who come here have to obligatorily capture the Big Dome–if nothing else.

This year features three different movies about attacks on the White House.  Why?

Serendipity.  I think it’s just a fluke; such clustering sometimes happens when Hollywood’s commercial minds run in the same grooves.  It could also be a hangover from action films spinning off popular TV shows like “24.” It should be noticed that two of the latest—“Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down”—were not shot (or barely shot) in flying-saucer-steals-homeplate-in-washington-baseball-park-the-day-the-earth-stood-still-1951-directed-by-robert-wise-picture-courtesy-20th-century-foxDC; they were essentially filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Montreal.

Attacks on the seat of executive power are a recurring trope for DC movies, from as far back as sci-fi movies in the 1950’s (“Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” – 1956).  Other clobberings of the White House occur in “Superman II,” “Independence Day,” and “2012.”

What are some other classic portrayals of the White House in movies?

Though no movie has ever been permitted to shoot in the White House, some films have produced convincing re-creations of the mansion, especially its Oval Office. An early attempt (which was a bit too grandiose) was in “Wilson” (1944), but a better exemplar was the fine office fabricated for “Seven Days in May.”  More recent excellent examples of the Oval Office appear in “Dave” (1993), and “The American President.”  In the former case, Warner Brothers studio not only crafted good interiors but constructed a convincing scale model of the building seen from the South Lawn.  In the latter case, director Rob Reiner and his production team gained ample access to study the White House and then carefully duplicated the Oval Office as well as a number of other important internal spaces.  The most convincing display of authentic White House political action was in “Thirteen Days” (2000),  a study of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A classically bad portrayal of the White House was in “Gabriel Over the White House,” a strange Depression-era picture starring Walter Huston as a near-fascist reformer.  His “White House” is an absurd studio set.

Who is the best film President?

Hands down, Daniel Day Lewis as “Lincoln” (2012).  Not only is the performance commanding but the president portrayed is magisterial.  Plus, he is the only “president” to win an Oscar!  In its day (1944), Alexander Knox’s interpretation of Woodrow Wilson in “Wilson” was also deemed superior.  Bruce Greenwood did a fine turn as JFK in the documentary-like “Thirteen Days” as did stalwart Henry Fonda in “Fail Safe” (1964). A couple of recent kick-ass presidents were flyboy Bill Pullman in “Independence Day” (1996) and Harrison Ford fighting some Russkies in “Air Force One” (1997). 

Who is the worst?

I nominate Gene Hackman as President Richmond in “Absolute Power.”  Not only is he a philanderer, abuser, and liar but he uses his Secret Service detail to cover up the murder of his mistress.  He’s a bad dude.  On the comic side, probably Christopher Jones as the under-age Max Flatow in the execrable “Wild in the Streets” (1968).  Second place may go to Dan Hedaya as a demented Nixon in “Dick” (1999).

Of the lesser-known movies in your book, which most deserve to be watched again? 

I would argue for the great George Stevens’ smart war-time comedy “The More the Merrier” (1943—a smart wartime comedy), “Seven Days in May” (crisp thriller about a military coup attempt), and “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (1978–a rounded look at a US senator).  Among the more contemporary, I think these deserve a look:  “Wag the Dog” (1998–a prescient, tart black comedy), “Shattered Glass” (2003–a serious journalistic drama based on real events) and “Slam” (1998–a DC movie which gets into the cracks and crevices of our city which other movies mostly ignore).

Which is the scariest movie in the book?  Which is the funniest?  Which is the most historically accurate?

The scariest remains “The Exorcist” (1973), a monumental horror film of its time and still the only significant effort in this genre ever made about DC.

For me, the funniest are the oldies, like “The More the Merrier” and “Born Yesterday” (1950).  On the mordant side, “Being There” is the best; on the sweet side, perhaps “Dave.”

The most historically accurate are “Lincoln” and “Thirteen Days.” 






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Burn After Reading

Posted on December 23, 2008 at 8:01 am

The Coen brothers may have achieved mainstream success with their Best Picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men, but so much for adapting prestigious literary novels that engage the essential American archetypes; they are back with another twisty, genre-tweaking movie filled with their trademark combination of deadpan delivery by characters who are venal, dumb, or both, plus some shockingly grisly violence.

In past films, the Coens have played on the fine line between being derivative and being clever in adapting genre conventions to shaggy-dog-style discursive plot lines and with the way an understated tone can give an ironic twist to an under-written wisecrack. This movie skates along that fine line but benefits tremendously from two character actors who are usually limited to leading man roles because they happen to be People Magazine Sexiest Men of the Year.

George Clooney plays Harry, a twitchy, slightly anxious, persistently polyamorous U.S. Marshall from the Treasury Department. When he mentions twice that he has never discharged his weapon, we know that gun is going to have to go off before the end of the film. Brad Pitt plays Chad, a dim but energetic personal trainer who is enthusiastic about hydrating, always has his earphones in, doesn’t like wearing a suit, and thinks he’s hit the big time when a computer disk with some spy-ish looking numbers is found in the ladies’ locker room of the health club. Chad finds out that the data belongs to Osborne Cox (John Malcovich, furiously hostile as only John Malcovich can be) and thinks he might be able to get a “reward” for returning it. When Cox doesn’t cooperate, Chad and his colleague Linda (Frances McDormand), who desperately needs money so she can get liposuction, decide to find another buyer. But they are so clueless about international affairs that the only country they can think of to sell it to is Russia. They drive over to the Russian embassy and ask the first person they meet there if he wants to pay them for it, promising (without any basis in reality) that there is more where it came from.

Meanwhile, several of these characters run into each other when they are — let’s just say looking for love in all the wrong places. And out at Langley, a senior CIA officer briefed on the situation (J.K. Simmons of “Juno”) orders that the FBI be kept out, a body in question be “burned,” and that he get an update “when it all makes sense.” That will be a long wait.

The real fun here is seeing the wickedly comic deftness of Clooney and Pitt, liberated from the burden of glamor and clearly enjoying themselves tremendously. Tilda Swinton is nicely steely as Cox’s doctor wife, Richard Jenkins is endearingly timid as the lovelorn manager of the health club, and McDormand delivers as the relentlessly positive believer in the infinite possibilities of self-improvement. There are some lightly touched themes of delusion, “negativity,” and looking for love in all the wrong places that might be a glimpse of a larger statement about world affairs. But we can’t be expected to unpack all of that for at least a decade. In the meantime, those who are looking for a return to the confounding archness and stylized dryness from the minds of the Coens will enjoy this latest peek into their view of the world.

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Comedy Drama Satire Spies

Washington Film Critics Pick ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

Posted on December 7, 2008 at 8:00 pm

The Washington Area Film Critics have announced our awards for 2008. “Slumdog Millionaire,” the story of an orphan in India whose correct answers on the local version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” lead to suspicions he was cheating, won not only the top prize for best movie but also awards for direction, screenplay, and the “breakthrough” performance of its young star. Other awards went to the comeback performance by an actor whose troubled past mirrors the struggles of the character he plays (Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”), to Hollywood’s most distinguished actress (Meryl Streep in “Doubt”), and to the late Heath Ledger in this year’s biggest money-maker, “The Dark Knight”).
Best Film: Slumdog Millionaire/Fox Searchlight
Best Director: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
Best Actress: Meryl Streep (Doubt)
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Best Supporting Actress: Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married)
Best Original Screenplay: Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire)
Best Animated: Wall?E/Disney&Pixar
Best Documentary: Man on Wire/Magnolia Pictures
Best Foreign Film: Let the Right One In/Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing
Best Ensemble: Doubt/Miramax
Best Breakthrough: Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire)
Best Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button/Paramount

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Washington Jewish Film Festival 2008

Posted on November 30, 2008 at 8:00 am

The 2008 Washington Jewish Film Festival has released its schedule. Opening night is a film I have really been looking forward to, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger. The festival, now in its 19th year, will have 59 features, documentaries & shorts representing 10 countries. Other films on the schedule include “Lemon Tree,” based on A the true story of a Palestinian widow who must defend her lemon tree field when a new Israeli Defense Minister moves next to her and threatens to have her lemon grove torn down, and “Like a Fish Out of Water,” a romantic comedy about an Argentinian immigrant to Israel who falls for his Hebrew teacher. One of the highlights of the schedule is a salute to the late documentarian Charles Guggenheim, featuring a presentation from his daughter, particularly apt as the schedule features a number of new documentary films. New Film Fest Director Susan Barocas explains this year’s trend, “We had so many good films to choose from, but the docs were exceptional. It’s exciting to see more and more filmmakers turning the cameras on themselves and the worlds around them, revealing untold stories in their own unique voices.”

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