Last night I took a cab from where I'm staying, near American University, to Dupont Circle to meet friends for dinner. It was the tail end of rush hour (6:30), and the bottleneck of traffic on Nebraska Avenue above Ward Circle was ridiculous. The cabdriver was angry about it, even though he now gets paid for that time (he wouldn't have, under the old zone system, but DC cabs are metered now).
"Take the right on Foxhall," I told him.
"No, I'm going to take Massachusetts," he said. "Canal Road is crazy this time of night."
"Why would you take Canal Road?" I said. "You can cut over. Take Foxhall to Reservoir to R, if you want to avoid the traffic."
"No," he said, "I'll cut over on Cathedral to Massachusetts." Which he did; cabdrivers love Massachusetts because the lights are timed and they can speed with impunity.
It worked out fine and I was right on time, but it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, which is also one of the few movies I've ever seen that gets Washington, DC right. Forget about thrillers like No Way Out or (God forbid) The Pelican Brief; not only do I not recognize that Washington, big chunks of those movies weren't even filmed here. Even All the President's Men seems fake, partly because it happened before I lived here but mostly because it feels so self-conscious.
This is a personal list, and some movies you might include aren't here because I haven't seen them. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.
1. Broadcast News (1987). This is the movie I was thinking about last night. Holly Hunter, as TV news producer Jane Craig, can't help giving the cabdriver directions for shortcuts and avoiding traffic. What's especially funny to DC residents who watch this movie is that she's not always right, which is even more accurate. Last night, for example, we'd have avoided traffic by taking Reservoir to R, but lost time for added blocks and stop signs in residential neighborhoods. Twenty years have made this movie look uncannily prescient.
2. Breach (2007). Forget about In the Line of Fire, this movie shows what it's really like to work for the FBI: windowless rooms, computer work, bureaucracy and paranoia. At least, that's what I've heard from people who work there. Laura Linney's character in this movie rings especially true to me: she's a career agent facing the possibility that her life's work has been a waste of time. "I'd offer you some advice," she says to agent-in-training Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), "but I don't even have a cat."
3. Dave (1993). No, the plot — Kevin Kline plays a Presidential impersonator who's drafted to take the President's place after the real President has a stroke — is completely implausible, but the movie is one of my favorites, in part because it gets the details right. Frank Langella, as the President's top aide, is terrifyingly believable; I have been at parties similar to the one he hosts near the end of the movie. Dave and the real President's wife sneak out one night for a date in Adams-Morgan, and the only part of that scene I didn't buy was how easily they found parking.
4. Election (1999). Washington, DC makes only a cameo appearance in this movie, at the very end, but what a perfect ending. It's a gorgeous shot of the front of the Hay-Adams Hotel, and Tracy Flick is doing exactly what the Tracy Flicks of this world aspire to. (And I say this as someone who often feels an uncomfortable spiritual kinship with Miss Flick.)
5. Wedding Crashers (2005). Mock me if you will. This movie is dead-on accurate about a certain stratum of Washington society, the caste that has weekend homes on the Eastern Shore and sends its children to private schools and expensive universities. I have no idea how much of it was filmed in Washington, but the Clearys' second home is in St. Michaels, Maryland.