Access Pollywood: The 100 Best Washington Movies Ever

Let the Debate Begin … A rundown of the top 100 best movies set in and around Washington D.C.
Introduction by
Movies Ranked by WL Film Committee

In Wag the Dog, the political talk show at the end of the film lists its phone number as 1-800-555-0199. This number is also Lester Burnham’s office number in American Beauty (1999) as well as Lowell Bergman’s fax number in The Insider (1999).

I groan when I hear about yet another “Washington” movie because few of them reflect the way we Washingtonians really live. For instance, in No Way Out, some bad guys chase – so he jumps over the K Street expressway and runs down the entrance of a (non-existent) Georgetown Metro stop, where he boards the Baltimore subway. By the way, that subway is subbing for our Metro, which – wisely – won’t allow scenes with weapons or chases.

But there’s more. How many Washington movies have you seen where somebody drives from Bethesda to downtown by way of Arlington Cemetery with a swing by the Jefferson Memorial? Or makes it from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill in five minutes during rush hour? Too many.

Oh, I’ve got my list of winners and losers. I hated Arlington Road because weirdo blows up the FBI Building. That’s crossing the line in my book. I loved the original Manchurian Candidate – the one where they brainwash Laurence Harvey – because they included a television press conference with gigantic 1962 cameras from WRC-TV. I have a very fond spot in my heart for Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, which I saw at the Big Chief Drive-In in San Antonio with my dad. Even though the flying saucers slice through the Washington monument, I forgive them, because as a kid, that movie thrilled me – and I never dreamed I’d actually live here. Speaking of thrills, I still try to walk up and down the Exorcist steps on M Street every few years in tribute.

One of my favorite Washington films is Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays an idiot gardener who only knows the world through television. Thrown into the real world, our town’s most powerful people take his utterances as pure wisdom. Being there also has great scenes of D.C. in the late ’70s, and I think it’s the first movie to use Biltmore in Ashville, North Carolina as a location. Rent the movie if you haven’t seen it, and then go see Biltmore.

I also love Broadcast News, which holds up pretty well. James L. Brooks spent several days at NBC before he shot it. He includes a hilarious scene of a news aide running with a tape to the control room. She jumps over people, knocks things over, and makes it in the nick of time. Brooks put this in because back then, Channel 4 edited videotapes in the basement and played them back in master control on the other side of the building. Somebody made that hall run every night – it was part of the rush of working in TV. Now, I work at WJLA ABC7, where they have state-of-the- art equipment. The editors put our tape into a computer, hit enter, and it’s done. Still, I’m glad I worked in TV in the hall runner days, and I’m glad Broadcast News immortalized them.

Most of all, I’m glad I live in Washington, because it’s beautiful and exciting, and it looks great on screen and off. As one actor told me in front of the Lincoln Monument, “No back lot in Hollywood can compare to this.”

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
An idealistic Boy Rangers leader triumphs over corruption.

In Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Jimmy Stewart dried out his throat with baking soda to make it hoarse for the big “filibuster scene.

2. All the President’s Men (1976) Hollywood’s take on Watergate

3. Wag the Dog (1997) A Hollywood producer fakes a war to boost the President’s ratings.

4. St. Elmos Fire (1985) The Brat Pack moves to Georgetown.

5. Citizen Kane (1941) A media mogul dabbles in politics.

6. The American President (1995) The President romances a lobbyist.

7. Thank You for Smoking (2005) A lobbyist spins for Big Tobacco.

8. ’s War (2007) Playboy Congressman Charlie Wilson covertly funds anti-Russian rebellion in Afghanistan.

9. The Exorcist (1973) Demonic possession on M Street.

10. Dr. Strangelove OR : How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) An insane General jump starts a nuclear holocaust.

11. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) Someone regrets giving that My Pet Goat footage.

12. Apocalypse Now (1979) The Vietnam nightmare, along with the Iraq quagmire, shadow today’s politics.

13. Nixon (1995) The troubled President behind Watergate.

14. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) ’s Oscar-winning documentary on the threat of global warming.

15. Traffic (2000) A conservative Drug Czar sees his daughter battle addiction.

16. The Godfather, Part II (1974) A Senate committee tries (and fails) to indict the Corleone clan.

17. JFK (1991) A New Orleans district attorney uncovers a massive conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination.

18. Advise and Consent (1962) A controversial candidate for Secretary of State

19. Absolute Power (1997) During a break-in, a thief sees the President cover up his mistress’ s murder.

20. Broadcast News (1987) This romantic comedy plays journalists’ egos for laughs.

21. The Pelican Brief (1993) Two Supreme Court Justices are murdered.

22. The Insider (1999) Blowing the whistle on Big Tobacco.

23. Being There (1979) Politicians confuse a gardner’s plant-lore with profound economic insight.

24. The War of the Roses (1989) an estranged power-couple plots against each other.

25. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Communists conspire to put a brainwashed soldier in the White House.

26. The Contender (2000) A female Senator is the Vice Presidential nominee.

27. Arlington Road (1999) A Terrorism Studies professor suspects his neighbors.

28. The Good Shepherd (2006) The film follows the development of the C.I.A.

29. Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore connects the Columbine
massacre to American gun culture.

30. The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) The CIA wrongfully targets a man
wearing mismatched shoes.

31. Wedding Crashers (2005) Two buddies crashWashington-area weddings.

32. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) A look at an infamous corporate crime and the company led by Kenneth Lay.

33. Primary Colors (1998) A thinly fictionalized look at ’s first White House campaign.

34. Bob Roberts (1992) A conservative folk singer-turned-politician and his corrupt election tactics.

35. Dave (1993) A Presidental lookalike enters the White House for real.

36. No End in Sight (2007) An exploration of the U.S. – Iraq quagmire.

In Thank You For Smoking, no one is shown smoking (except in archival footage) throughout the entire movie. Aaron Eckhart holds an empty packet and holds an unlit cigar.

37. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Hollywood agrees: Washington’s monuments were not built to repel Martian weaponry.

38. Forrest Gump (1994) Movie magic lets Forrest Gump and Tricky Dick share the screen.

39. The Hunt for Red October (1990) Sean Connery is riveting as a Russian nuclearsubmarine commander trying to defect.

40. Legally Blonde 2 (2003) Elle Woods takes on Washington and Bruiser comes out of the closet.

41. The War Room (1994) A documentary look at the hard-ball tactics of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

42. Breach (2007) The F.B.I. uncovers a damaging leak.

43. Enemy of the State (1998) The N.S.A. pursues a Georgetown lawyer who uncovers a murder conspiracy.

44. Strangers on a Train (1951) Murder, socialites and trains: Hitchcock.

45. Syriana (2005) Power brokers make deals with Big Oil.

46. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Aliens Klaatu and Gort visit the Lincoln Memorial and threaten to destroy Earth.

47. No Way Out (1987) A murder, a political cover-up, and a chase through the “Georgetown Metro stop” – what more could you want?

48. True Lies (1994) An undercover agent uses his career to boost his marriage.

49. A Few Good Men (1992) A novice Navy lawyer defends two Marines.

50. Air Force One (1997) A strong female VP leads the nation.

51. Glory (1989) The story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black unit in the U.S. Army.

52. The Birth of a Nation (1915) This politically-incorrect silent film depicts a Southern clan during and after the Civil War.

53. The French Connection (1970) New York City cops chase a shipment of “Freedom” heroin to Washington.

54. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) Senator Henry Dawes strips the Sioux of their sacred lands.

55. Clear and Present Danger (1994) When a Colombian drug cartel murders the President’s friend, acts.

56. Armageddon (1998)  NASA recruits oil-drillers to destroy an asteroid.

57. Mars Attacks! (1996) Martians come to Earth to vaporize the President’s dog (along with the rest of the planet).

58. Bulworth (1998) A Senator running for reelection arranges a hit on himself.

59. Gardens of Stone (1987) A Vietnam veteran guards Arlington National Cemetery.

In Apocolypse Now, was intoxicated in the hotel room scene. He punched a mirror, cutting his hand. While drunk, Sheen also began sobbing and tried to attack Francis Ford Coppola.

60. Guarding Tess (1994) A difficult former First Lady torments the head of her security team.

61. Independence Day (1996) Extraterrestrials in the White House

62. Lions for Lambs (2007) A reporter talks Middle Eastern foreign policy with a Republican senator.

63. Fail Safe (1964) American pilots bomb Moscow.

64. The People vs. Larry Flint (1996) The players behind the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.

65. The Fog of War (2005) Former Defense Secretary reflects on Vietnam and the state of modern warfare.

66. Bobby (2006) A recreation of the day when RFK was assassinated.

67. Minority Report (2002) In 2054, a D.C. cop must stop himself from committing a future crime.

68. Murder at 1600 (1997) That would be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

69. G.I. JANE (1997) A ripped joins the U.S. Navy Seals.

70. Get on the Bus (1996) D.C.’s Million Man March comes alive.

71. True Colors (1991) A Department of Justice employee’s investigation leads him to entrap his corrupt best friend.

72. Damn Yankees! (1958) A baseball fan bargains with Satan.

73. Quiz Show (1994) Congressional investigation of a rigged game show.

74. The Aviator (2004) A corrupt Senator Brewster tries to destroy aviator Howard Hughes.

75. Canadian Bacon (1995) Michael Moore’s farce about a war with Canada.

76. Medium Cool (1969) Political turbulence in the late 1960s.

77. Rendition (2007) A wife and her husband’s detention in Egypt.

78. Thirteen Days (2000) The Kennedy White House during the Cuban missile crisis.

79. Dick (1999) Think Legally Blonde meets Watergate.

80. The Conversation (1974) A paranoid surveillance expert gets bugged.

81. Redacted (2007) Real-life American brutality in Iraq.

82. Shooter (2007) The President risks being assassinated.

83. Slam (1998) An inside look into a D.C. jail

84. State of the Union (1948) A Presidential nominee speaks against corruption.

85. Born Yesterday (1950) A tycoon hires a journalist to teach his mistress about Washington society.

86. In the Line of Fire (1993) A Secret Service agent needs to stop an assassin.

87. Protocol (1984) A cocktail waitress prevents an Emir’s assassination.

88. Outfoxed: ’s War on Journalism (2004) The documentary makes a case for FOX News’ biased political coverage.

89. Chances Are (1989) A Georgetown D.A. is killed and reincarnated.

In Charlie Wilson’s War, a vintage Miss Texas photo of Mary Nell Hubbard was used for a scene in the movie ( plays a former beauty queen). Hubbard wouldn’t take payment for the photo she provided. She privately joked, “I’ve gone from a headline to an archive to an artifact.”

90. Drop Zone (1994) Drug smugglers plan to parachute onto the National Mall on July Fourth.

91. Head of State (2003) A black alderman runs for and wins the Presidency.

92. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (2008) decides to capture bin Laden.

93. Heartburn (1986) A New Yorker moves to Washington with her less-than-faithful husband.

94. Man of the Year (2006) When voting machines malfunction, a T.V. comedian becomes President.

95. The Walker (2007) A society escort gets involved with murder.

96. Scorpio (1973) An assassin takes down a veteran agent.

97. U.S. vs. (2006) Nixon attempts to silence Lennon.

98. Watch on the Rhine (1941) A Nazi sympathizer infiltrates a D.C. home.

99. Red dragon (2002) The F.B.I. captures a tattooed Ralph Fiennes.

100. The Simpsons Movie (2007) Al Gore’s cameo almost beats Spider Pig’s.

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14 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Blakeslee says:

    My favorite thing is that in the movies so many charachter’s offices have views of the Capitol Building or the White House. Amazing.

  2. C. L. L. says:

    You’ve got number 98 all wrong.
    That was not the plot of the movie!
    It is obvious you didn’t see it.

  3. Jimmie says:

    #12 “Apocalypse Now”? Huh? Apart from maybe a passing mention of “Washington” in dialog, at no point does this movie feature Washington D.C. or have a scene set there, even in passing. Sloppy list at best. #91, “Head of State” is more of a DC movie.

  4. Alger says:

    Also, the date for Watch on the Rhine (#98) is wrong. It was released in 1943.

  5. JJC says:

    Not bad….but don’t forget all the classics like “The More the Merrier” circa 1943…and the great “Born Yesterday” (circa 1950) which has the great shot of the old concert series they used to do on the Potomac behind the Lincoln Memorial.

  6. JJC says:

    oh, and C.L.L., you should read “The Dangerous Otto Katz” if you get the chance, great book!!

  7. MM says:

    I question the order of the list. A clear example: Legally Blond 2 is placed before The War Room. Really? There are a million examples – good list – poor order. Probably should have limited to top 50 though. At least 50 of these movies are just filler…

  8. Sasha says:

    What about “Burn After Reading”?

    Such a great DC flick!

  9. Isaac says:

    The American President #6 and Protocol #87?? Minority Report at #67?? And where’s D.C. Cab (1983)?? This list needs a lot of work!

  10. Jd Walter says:

    Yet another wasted opportunity to draw attention to quality films ABOUT DC, not simple SET in DC because it is yet another mind numbing political thriller born of some trite pulp fiction. . .

    The More the Merrier is actually about living in DC during a housing crunch. Granted its old black and white and that isn’t chic, but Joel McRae is excellent as always – in his pre-Shane western days.

    That’s the sad part about DC – most people’s conception of this great city is set squarely inside the federal zone. Whoever made this list should actually visit DC and understand the city does in fact extend past Constitution and Independence Avenues.

  11. Andrew says:

    No DC Cab?

  12. David R. says:

    “The Conversation”? It’s set and shot entirely in San Francisco.

  13. aa says:

    stupid list. Just because politics are mentioned does not make it a Washington movie any more than a movie mentioning the film industry make a “LA” movie.

    A bunch of these movies don’t even have any actual scences filmed in DC. Apocalypse Now? Bowling for Columbine? JFK is a New Orleans movie, not a DC one.

    And no mention of DC Cab. Yeah it’s stupid, but it is actually filmed and set in DC (all of it).

  14. EN says:

    Shattered Glass is a great, underrated DC movie.

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