Washington Life‘s list of “The 100 Best Washington Movies Ever” earlier this week was, well, pretty stupid. Nearly every film listed was about federal Washington; the titles were chosen by a mysterious, unnamed WL Film Committee; and then there was Arch Campbell‘s introduction salivating over the scenic but very obvious beauty of the National Mall and the monuments.
After issuing our handy index to Washington Life‘s list, Arts Desk remembered that we’re a constructive blog when it suits us. Plenty of the entries on the WL list—A Few Good Men, The Exorcist, Being There—are great “Washington movies.” Others, like Apocalypse Now and The French Connection, are just plain great, even if there’s no logical explanation for their inclusion.
But the burden of this list, or any listicle for that matter, is an over-reliance on the standbys. Do Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men occupy the top two spots on WL‘s list because they’re actually that good? Or is it because they’re high up on everyone else’s lists of the greatest political—i.e., Washington—films?
So Arts Desk is going do Washington Life one better: Tired of the endless coronations for the same old same old? Let’s discuss the Worst Washington Movies instead.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
In a political era awash with individualist bumpkins who think all we need to fix our problems are cheap slogans and some country-fried rage, Frank Capra‘s 1939 “classic” should be considered more of a warning shot. The acting is overwrought and the writing is lazy—Mr. Smith’s actual trip to Washington is presented as an extended montage of headlines and photos of the monuments. Of course, every cheap-ass, quickly compiled list of “great political films” fixates on Senator Smith’s third-act filibuster, but in this day and age we should be damning Capra for elevating the worst legislative tactic available to the already molasses-like upper chamber. And Jefferson Smith himself? An unmarried, childless 30-something presiding over a Boy Scout troop? Fucking creepy.—-Benjamin R. Freed
This Kevin Kline vehicle may be about federal Washington, but it trades in one of hometown D.C.’s favorite myths: that there’s this earnest, honest town beyond the White House gates that has nothing to do with the cynical crooks running the country. Kline’s Bob Dave Kovic is presented as one of those all-American locals, running an employment agency in Georgetown and dabbling in impersonations of the president, also played by Kline, whom he resembles. He’s eventually induced to masquerade as the president full-time and, naturally, learns that both the incapacitated chief executive and the shady aides who arrange the subterfuge are a bunch of crooks. What does Dave do? Among other things, he calls on a buddy, who drives his crappy car to the White House to go over the budget. If I ran my business this way, it’d be a disaster, the buddy says. Dave also announces some vague and sweet plan to give everyone a job. Gimme a break. In the real-life District, smart residents are every bit as cynical about the game of national politics as the elected arrivistes—-and the business elite makes sure to keep itself wired on the Hill, not just in the Wilson Building. At the end, having extricated himself from the conspiracy, handed power to a noble vice president, and gone back to being Dave, Kline’s character runs for the D.C. Council. The sap. I wouldn’t vote for him.—-Michael Schaffer
State of Play (2009)
In 2009’s State of Play, Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a hard-living journalist in a perenially crumpled suit. With his sterling integrity and steady diet of Häagen-Dazs and Milwaukee’s Best, this grizzled lifer could show those newfangled bloggers a thing or two about real journalism. State of Play‘s desperate attempts at verisimilitude extend to its vision of Washington—-one that has all of the authenticity of a ride on the Circulator. From Crowe’s faux-dingy apartment—what, no English basement?—to the Kramerbooks menu tacked to the refrigerator, it’s obvious that a few of the production’s intrepid interns took the Metro to Dupont at least once.—-Matt Siblo
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Although the action in Mars Attacks!—-Tim Burton’s disappointing paean to the alien-invasion films of the 1950s—-spans many global cities prone to cinematic devastation, much of it expectedly takes place in and around recognizable D.C. landmarks. After the mayhem begins, however, most of our skyline is left in ruins. In one scene, a flying saucer toys with a toppling Washington Monument and uses it to crush a group of Boy Scouts. Under the guise of diplomacy, a Martian ambassador wins an invitation to speak on Capitol Hill—-before promptly incinerating the entire U.S. Congress. Two lucky boys do get to live out the adolescent fantasy of arming themselves with ray guns as they escape an interrupted White House tour, but it’s not enough to save President Jack Nicholson from getting impaled. Though the B-movie shtick is pretty much on point, the gags often fall flat, in no small part because of the film’s reliance on mid-1990s special effects and a cast distractingly saturated with Hollywood stars. Some might enjoy seeing Pierce Brosnan’s head superimposed onto a Chihuahua; I’d rather watch an Ed Wood film.—-Matt Bevilacqua
The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)
Some consider this film, a remake of the 1972 French movie The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe, to be a comedic gem in Tom Hanks‘ early career, but it’s all too hokey and gimmicky to be considered a masterpiece. Hanks, an innocent violinist living in Georgetown, wanders obliviously into a crazy CIA scheme—wearing one red shoe, naturally!—where bumbling agents end up suspecting he’s a sinister spy. There may be secrets hidden in code in his sheet music! Hanks is seduced by a CIA blonde bombshell who tries to find out what he knows, which is nothing. There are chase scenes through Dupont Circle! Hanks catapults into the Potomac on a bicycle! Jim Belushi plays Hanks’ sidekick and tries to be funny. While the movie certainly isn’t sluggish, it’s a bit too campy for a city that takes itself too seriously.—-Michael E. Grass
True Lies (1994)
Actually, this movie rules. You can’t argue with pre-gubernatorial Arnold kicking ass left and right. Of course, its entertainment value doesn’t arise from breathtaking cinematography or quality acting; it’s enjoyable because it’s wildly absurd. With that in mind, its portrayal of life inside the District is just about incomprehensible—-particularly the scenes that happen in Georgetown. Where’s the soul-crushing traffic? How does the massive shootout in a Georgetown mall fly under MPD’s radar? Most mind-boggling of all: How does Arnold, whose character works for an allegedly secret government organization, manage to go on all these gung-ho adventures without pushing through mountains of bureaucratic red tape? I could almost buy the horse in the hotel, but you’d think he’d have to fill out a form afterward.—- Ryan Little
Burn After Reading (2008)
The most impressive thing about the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is Brad Pitt’s highlights. But the best thing? The spectacular manner in which his doofus personal trainer is dispatched at the film’s three-quarters mark. The film stitches espionage-thriller tropes to the comings and goings of various D.C. types, like John Malkovich’s frustrated CIA analyist, George Clooney’s bumbling U.S. marshall, and Frances McDormand’s gym-employee femme fatale. The characters are uniformly half-witted, but the Coens’ signature nihilism is a better fit for black comedy than the straight-up farce they’re going for here. When the inevitable non-ending arrives, you’re not left pondering the meaning of it all—only the reasons why you just wasted 90 minutes. To the film’s credit, it at least contains one very inventive sex device.—Jonathan L. Fischer