Cinematic portrayals of Washington, DC, reduce it to a tourist map.
“Watergate doesn’t go away,” says Bob Woodward.
The current political climate has rekindled interest in the scandal that named all subsequent scandals, and last week MSNBC aired a documentary looking back on the making of All the President’s Men (1976). Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the Oscar-winning political thriller follows Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as Washington Post reporters unravelling the mysteries of the Nixon White House. Routinely ranked among the best films about American politics, it’s also considered “the gold standard of journalism movies.” And in 2015, Washingtonian magazine readers voted it the “the most Washington movie ever.”
What exactly does “most Washington” mean? “This is not about cinematic quality,” claimed the magazine; “it is a test of ‘Washington-ness.’” In many ways, ATPM seems an odd choice, given its distorted representation of the city.
Much of the movie takes place inside nondescript interiors—notably the oppressively fluorescent Washington Post offices and the shadowy “Deep Throat” garage in Arlington, both of which actually were shot on sound stages in Los Angeles. These settings could be anywhere and therefore do little to convey “Washington-ness.” Many of the exteriors feature generic spaces such as parking lots, garages, and alleyways. One of the most famous images, late in the movie, has Redford walking across a vast empty lot at dawn, with the Herbert Hoover Building and the Washington Monument as backdrop. By the end of the film, the city has gone gray. In this sense, ATPM is the opposite of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which celebrates the city’s architectural icons as idols of American idealism, visual foils to political corruption. In ATPM, the city itself appears corrupted. As the movie progresses, more and more of it is seen in dim lighting, obscured through glass, or deformed by reflections.
What the Pakula and Capra films both have in common with seemingly every movie ever set in Washington is a fragmented relationship between time and space. Any resident can tell you that movies taking place in the capital often illogically or impossibly jump between disconnected locations. In Enemy of the State (1998), Will Smith runs into a building in Georgetown and exits the same building in a different neighborhood. In No Way Out (1987), Gene Hackman dines on the roof of one historic hotel and departs through the lobby of another. In a popular 2001 episode of The West Wing, the presidential motorcade leaves the White House for a press conference at the State Department, located less than a mile to the southeast, but in between they pass the National Cathedral, a few miles to the north.
Film editors call this “spatial discontinuity,” and the most common example in cinematic Washington occurs on the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Picture the interior of a car crossing the bridge, with the movie’s star framed in the foreground and the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in the background, through the back windshield. A 2003 book counted over two dozen films with this establishing shot, a quick and convenient way to place the story in its setting. In the real world, that drive would put you across the Potomac River and into Virginia, but in the cinematic world the actors usually end up somewhere else in the District itself. For example, early in The Contender (2000), when Joan Allen, the titular candidate for Vice President, first appears on screen, she and her entourage are in a limo, traveling west across Memorial Bridge, clearly leaving the city. Twenty seconds later, they drive past the Capitol (three miles to the east), and 30 seconds after that they pass the White House, halfway between the first two locations and headed in the wrong direction. The seamless conversation lasts all of one minute.
ATPM is full of these geographic dislocations. Woodward and Bernstein interview a woman in Springfield and afterward drive past the front of the Supreme Court building, on Capitol Hill, nowhere near their points of departure or destination. The inexplicable and often miraculous meandering begins with Woodward heeding instructions from “Deep Throat” to avoid being followed, but it becomes the characters’ normal mode of travel. The effect highlights Washington’s architectural monuments but disconnects them from their setting, disorienting the viewer. For example, a key scene in which Bernstein discusses misappropriation of funds with an FBI informant is set at Alexander Hamilton Place, behind the U.S. Treasury Building—a rather on-the-nose bit of symbolism—but fans often confuse the space with the better-known Lafayette Square, north of the White House.
“Doubling locations” is when filmmakers use one place to stand in for another place. When films distort the space of Washington, they effectively use the city to stand in for itself—self-doubling. Ironically, disconnecting the District from itself might be exactly what gives these movies their “Washington-ness.” Describing the nature of a cult film, famed semiotician Umberto Eco wrote that “one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole… [A]n unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs… It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.” This is exactly how Washingtonian movies often operate: they “unhinge” the city by separating its most recognizable buildings from their larger setting. Capra frequently frames these “visual icebergs” in ways that are spatially unrealistic, making them larger than life.
Divorcing architecture from urbanism reduces the capital to its icons only—objects absent a place. This might make a memorable movie, but it degrades the viewer’s understanding of the city by turning it into a tourist map. Urbanist Leon Krier’s influential outline of “The True City” envisions an integral relationship between architectural monuments and urban fabric. From this point of view, the broken relationship between buildings and place constitutes a “false” city, and “Washington-ness” begins to sound like “truthiness.” Fake news.
But Washington seems more susceptible to cinematic dislocation than other cities do, because the popular image of the city depends so much on its monuments. Charles Dickens described the American capital as “public buildings that need but a public to be complete,” and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called DC “an endless series of mock palaces clearly built for clerks.” Today, a travel website declares, “No city in America packs as many monuments and museums into one area as Washington, DC.” Maybe the outsider’s understanding of Washington is too heavily defined by Hollywood and the media, and how they see the city in film is how they experience it in person. Life imitates art.