Along with London and Paris, Washington, D.C., is one of the most filmed cities in the world. Scenes of government buildings, monuments, museums, and the mall in Washington, D.C. immediately convey the identity and aura of the most powerful nation in the world. Interesting and important events, decisions, conflicts, and more take place in Washington, D.C.-all of which make for interesting stories, told through the medium of film.
As a lifelong resident of the Washington, D.C. area and someone who worked for years in famous recognizable buildings in Washington, D.C., I want to highlight five classic and modern films that showcase important sites in this uber-recognizable capital city. I will also provide tips for visiting the sites where the films were shot in the District of Columbia.
My first two practical tips for visitors: (1) stay in the suburbs where hotel rates and crime rates are lower and free parking is available; (2) commute into the city and around the city on the Metrorail subway system. The Metro is a safe, efficient, and cost-effective form of transportation to most locations in the city. You will find a Metrorail map as one of the Resources accompanying this article.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – The U.S. Capitol Building
The granddaddy of all Washington movies has to be “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the classic 1939 Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart film. Stewart portrays Jefferson Smith, a citizen from the hinterlands appointed to fill a Senate seat, who takes his idealism to the United States Congress. His quest to create a national boys’ camp in his (unnamed) home state runs into indifference and corruption. The story takes a truly ugly turn when the idealist is falsely accused of pursuing the legislation for personal financial gain and must defend himself during an extended soliloquy delivered to an unsympathetic Senate.
The black and white film premiered at Constitutional Hall in Washington, with more than forty senators in attendance, some of whom may have walked out. Given the swirling currents of world war in that year, the subject matter of the film and the controversy about its portrayal of corruption in government now seem quaint in retrospect. One thing for certain is that the film was a breakout role for Jimmy Stewart. It was a box office hit and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” – The Ellipse, Dupont Circle
This 1951 blockbuster is the ancestor of many of the aliens-landing-on-Earth-in-spaceships movies we have seen and enjoyed over the decades, including Contact, Men in Black, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, and so many more. Set in a more innocent and low-budget time, this black and white Robert Wise film depicts a spaceship landing right in the heart of Washington, D.C. on the Ellipse, which is a 52 acre public park area near the White House. The people who flock to the scene number only in the hundreds and only two or three guards stay on duty! In fact there is much about this story that strains credulity, perhaps beyond its breaking point. Nonetheless, it is an engaging film that has imaginative elements.
The title refers to the lead character’s demonstration of power by causing all electricity to shut down worldwide for 30 minutes. Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, comes to Earth along with a mighty robot in order to inform Earth’s leaders that peace is essential or else the planet may be so dangerous to others that it could be destroyed. Klaatu disguises himself as an ordinary businessman and rents a room from a young mother, played by Patricia Neal. Of course Klaatu’s mission does not proceed smoothly. He makes contact with a scientist played by Sam Jaffe. The scenes at the scientist’s house were filmed at a house near Dupont Circle (H. Cornell Wilson house, 1609 16th Street NW) that has since become famous for its role in the movie and featured on house and garden tours.
Farragut West or McPherson Square for the Ellipse
Dupont Circle for the H. Cornell Wilson House
“All the President’s Men” – The Watergate, The Kennedy Center, Sans Souci Restaurant, the Library of Congress
Virtually all the action in this 1976 film depiction of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein takes place in Washington, D.C. or nearby. The book and the film chronicle the role of these two real life Washington Post reporters in discovering the purpose of the Watergate break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and the extent of the subsequent coverup. As we all know, culpability was ultimately traced all the way to President Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in August 1974. The film was directed by Alan Pakula, and starred heartthrob Robert Redford as Woodward, quirky character actor Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and Hollywood legend Jason Robards as Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.
Although the Washington Post did not permit filming in their newsroom, they did provide props and detailed information that allowed the construction of an eerily exact replica on a sound stage. There is a scene filmed in the parking lot of the Washington Post building. There is a memorable and expensive to film scene of the two reporters spending hours sifting through the card catalog at the Library of Congress looking for evidence that Republican operatives were studying up on Ted Kennedy. Clearly the work of reporters has become easier in the era of computers.
Foggy Bottom-GWU for the Watergate, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Sans Souci Restaurant
Capitol South for the Library of Congress
“First Monday in October” – The Supreme Court Building
Walter Matthau somewhat surprisingly portrays a Supreme Court Justice in this 1981 release directed by Ronald Neame that centers on the addition of the first female to the court. Jill Clayburgh plays conservative Justice Ruth Loomis, who clashes with Matthau’s liberal Justice Dan Snow on issues before the court. Of course, the two develop a mutual respect and even affection before the end of the film. This was obviously a topical film during the year when real life Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female appointed to the Supreme Court.
Overall, this seems to have been a pleasant but not too memorable outing for Matthau and Clayburgh, who did as much as they could with their characters in a film based on a play that was lacking in plot. The film had to work against a natural disinclination of the movie-going public to warm up to a film about Supreme Court judges in the first place.
“National Treasure” – The National Archives
Leaping forward to the 21st century, this 2004 film stars Nicolas Cage as a protector of national treasures. Unlike “The First Monday in October” (see above), this movie was loaded with plot! In fact, I could not begin to summarize the many twists and turns in National Treasure in this short article. The key idea in the plot is that Cage’s character Benjamin Franklin Gates takes it upon himself (as some kind of family tradition) to steal the original Declaration of Independence from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. in order to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Since it is a movie, of course he succeeds, despite all odds and many obstacles.
Along the way, Ben meets a love interest, Abigail (Diane Kruger), who is an official at the National Archives. The Declaration takes on added significance in the film because there is a map on the back of the document (appears invisible) that holds important clues to the location of a treasure hidden by the Founding Fathers. Throw in references to Knights Templar, Freemasons, assorted bad guys, the FBI, and the whole stew begins to taste like “The Da Vinci Code” meets “1776.”
Also featured are Christopher Plummer and Jon Voight as Ben’s grandfather and father, respectively. It was directed by Jon Turteltaub for Disney. In summary, it is slightly kooky, but quite entertaining.
Some other notable films with significant scenes set in Washington include: Advise and Consent (1962, Henry Fonda), Broadcast News (1987, William Hurt), The Firm (1992, Tom Cruise), In the Line of Fire (1993, Clint Eastwood), Forrest Gump (1994, Tom Hanks), Independence Day (1996, Bill Pullman), Traffic (2001, Benicio del Toro) and Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (Ben Stiller, 2009). Any of these films would be well worth renting in preparation for a visit to Washington, D.C.
Internet Movie Database
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in Wikipedia
“Journalism’s Finest 2 Hours and 16 Minutes” by Ken Ringle, Washington Post, June 14, 1992