7 Iconic DC Movies, Curated by a Film Historian at the Library of Congress
Relax, "National Treasure" definitely made the list
As DC’s outdoor summer movie scene revs up — from The Drive-In at Union Market to Adams Morgan Movie Nights to the Summer Movies on the Lawn at the Library of Congress (LOC) — we decided to check in with the top film expert at the LOC to talk about the District’s most iconic movies.
While some are on the National Film Registry, and therefore deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and are preserved under the National Film Preservation Act, Mike Mashon says it’s important to note the distinction between those movies that are set in DC and those that are filmed in DC. The head of the moving images section at The National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC), an arm of the LOC based in Culpepper, VA, Mashon notes that while “there are lots of films that are set in Washington, DC, there are not all that many films that are actually filmed in Washington.” The difference differentiates the District from other cities. “There are buildings here that have iconographic value,” says Mashon, “but unlike movies that are filmed in LA or NYC, most don’t pull the viewer into the city with local street scenes and location shoots.”
Mashon says that while there’s great “value” in setting a movie in the District, more often DC is used merely as a backdrop. “When I think of ‘Washington, DC movies,’ they might have some outdoor scene — people walking along the Mall, chatting along the Mall, or in the case of Forrest Gump, reuniting with an old friend in the middle of the reflecting pool — that kind of thing,” he says. “But, in many ways, the City is not a star.”
DC scenes carry “a visual weight” for filmmaker, says Mashon, that help them tell a story. The Mall, in particular, “is pretty irresistible” and offers many stunning views depending on the angle it’s shot at — the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, “scenes that are really, really striking,” he says. The Mall is also often used for scenes of clandestine meetings, Mashon notes. In All the President’s Men or Oliver Stone’s JFK, characters sit on benches having secret conversations.
“DC tends to connote that sense of gravitas and political power and, more often than not, in a negative way, the shadowy doings of our government,” he explains. “That’s pretty commonplace.” And, of course, there’s the White House: “There are so many films about a president, or involving a president, where you see the White House or the White House has blown up.”
And, while there’s a whole city beyond the tourist sites, Mashon says, it’s not lost on him that those images are usually not captured by films set in DC.
Must-see DC movies
Mashon’s list of must-see movies set in and/or shot in DC include films that “use the cultural iconography of Washington, DC — that’s one thing that we do have going for us,” he says, adding that the District’s highly recognizable buildings “have a cultural weight to them. They’re more than just architecture, they’re more than a pretty building, they mean something; they carry some weight.” The top three buildings are the White House, the Capitol Building (and Supreme Court) and the Lincoln Memorial. “I also believe it is indisputable that the most beautiful building in Washington, DC is our very own Jefferson Building — the silhouette of the Library of Congress, I think is very striking,” he adds. “But [in most movies] the library tends to be a little obscured.”
Below, Mashon’s list of DC faves — and quick commentary.
1. All the President’s Men (1976)
“A fair amount of All the President’s Men was actually shot in Washington…Bernstein and Woodward — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman — walking around in DC, in garages in DC, and that beautiful aerial shot in the main reading room [of the LOC]. So they spent a fair amount of time [filming] in DC…obviously it’s very evocative of the town; when you watch it, you feel like you’re in DC.”
2. Born Yesterday (1950)
“A lot of people don’t know this, but the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence used to be in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Now it’s at the National Archives … There’s a scene of William Holden and Judy Holliday in which Holden takes Holliday over to the Library of Congress to see the Declaration and the Constitution. And I love it because of this fun fact that it used to be here.”
3. Forrest Gump (1994)
“One of the things that I liked about Forrest Gump is that they use the reflecting pool [at the Lincoln Memorial] in a more lighthearted moment.”
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
“My favorite. I love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The centerpiece is a filibuster by Jimmy Stewart. But, that [scene] was a recreation of the Senate floor. It was not filmed in the Capitol. Columbia Pictures sent a second unit here that did exterior shots of the White House and the Supreme Court and the Capitol. And they did do a little bit of shooting of Jimmy Stewart going to, of course, the Lincoln Memorial, where he can be inspired by Abraham Lincoln. But there’s really not all that much action that takes place in literal Washington, DC. Most of that was shot out in the Columbia sound stages in California.”
5. National Treasure (2004)
“[This movie is] a hoot. I love the fact that there’s part of that that’s filmed in our [the LOC’s] main reading room, which is the single most beautiful space in Washington.”
6. No Way Out (1987)
“There’s a scene where he runs into the Baltimore subway and he emerges from the Washington subway in Georgetown…a subway, in Georgetown!? Not only the Baltimore-Washington thing, but a subway in Georgetown!?”
6. St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)
“Other than the occasional shots of Georgetown or a shot of The Capitol, this movie could really be set anywhere.”
7. The Exorcist (1973)
“[This is] a pretty good example of a [DC] film that is not about politics. The film is now 50 years old — I don’t know how much of a tourist attraction the Georgetown steps are anymore. But I know for a long time they were.” Mashon speculates that the steps, while a striking visual, was likely not a tourist attraction until the movie came out.
For Mashon, these movies, these scenes set in DC “remind me of what a beautiful city we live in, a city that’s filled with grandeur and hope. There’s something about those buildings…from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House, up to the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the Capitol, the Smithsonian that just makes me feel good about where I live and where I am. I’ve always responded very viscerally to those images in films…it’s inspiring.”
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