Alien invasions, senatorial satires, and Cold War thrillers: our picks for the best entertainment featuring Washington, D.C.
With its iconic monuments and memorials, the United States’ capital makes a great backdrop for drama and comedy alike. Over the years it’s been dramatized, futurized, science-fictionalized, and satirized in everything from feature films to poetry collections—though all the while, the true accounts of American political scandal are still some of D.C.’s most entertaining, unbelievable tales.
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Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, this Steven Spielberg blockbuster takes place in the year 2054, blending genres of sci-fi, action, and thriller. It’s chock-full of dramatic chase scenes throughout a futurized D.C., as a “pre-crime” police force—backed by a team of surreal psychics—arrests people for crimes they’re destined to commit in the future. It has all the special effects and over-the-top action sequences you could desire from a Tom Cruise protagonist and a Steven Spielberg budget.
The nation’s capital often serves as a setting for alien invasions and Mars Attacks! (1996) is a pleasing satire of that, full of kitschy gore and strange characters. A star-studded group (Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close as president and first lady, and Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, and Sarah Jessica Parker) makes up the cast, while outlandish 1970s-inspired costumes and purposely cheesy special effects give the film the cartoonish, otherworldly quality to make it a Tim Burton cult classic.
In the Loop
British filmmaker Armando Iannucci gives us the somewhat maddening, totally entertaining world of D.C. political missteps and blundered negotiations—that later inspired his HBO show Veep. The movie follows the political frenzy between Britain and the United States leading up to the Iraq War. Politicians and staffers race in circles around the conference rooms and hallways of D.C.’s government buildings, dropping dry gems of British humor along the way.
All The President’s Men
This Academy Award–winning film follows Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—the two young Washington Post journalists responsible for the incredible investigation of the Watergate scandal—through their meetings with clandestine informant Deep Throat, the discovery of President Nixon’s tapes, and the process of exposing it all to the American public. While a little less studly without the young Dustin Hoffman–Robert Redford combination, the nonfiction book of the same name (written by the journalists themselves) delves deeper into the details of a political detective story almost too good for fiction.
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde
Elle goes to Washington! Like many feature-film sequels, the second Legally Blonde takes everything that works in the original (when a young, ditzy Reese Witherspoon improbably makes her way through Harvard Law) and further satirizes itself, pushing the boundaries into ridiculous (but entertaining) content. Beyond the Barbie-like outfits, sorority cheer scenes, and one-liners, the movie does what political satire is meant to do: calls out some of the real farce and absurdity of American legislation.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
If extraterrestrials ever invade Washington, D.C., there’s a certain cinematic grandeur they’ll have to live up to. This 1951 sci-fi flick is a classic for those with an appreciation for alien invasions before the use of fancy special effects—just good old-fashioned flying saucers and iridescent space suits.
Advise and Consent
Allen Drury’s 1959 political thriller, following the tumultuous nomination process of a secretary of state with a Communist background, was both a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winner—a rare occurrence for any novel. Credited with creating a realistic yet racy tale about a could-be-boring political process, the book became a series and was followed by five sequels. The 1962 movie stars Henry Fonda, with many of the scenes shot in and around key Washington landmarks.
Seven Days in May
Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Frederic March, and Ava Gardner star in this 1964 film, where the Cold War hysteria of the times is condensed into a weeklong attempted takeover of the United States government. The 1962 New York Times best-selling book (by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) served as the movie’s inspiration. Both film and book follow the same structure, split into day-by-day chapters as the week’s events unfurl.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
In this 1939 black-and-white classic, a baby-faced, idealistic Jimmy Stewart comes to the nation’s capital and is soon wrapped up in the unscrupulousness of the U.S. Senate. Stewart’s scene orating against greed and corruption on the floor of the Senate is still one of the most iconic cinematic performances ever about D.C. politics.
This HBO political comedy satirizes the personalities that make up American policy and power, with an Emmy-winning performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the “Veep” (vice president, and on-again, off-again president hopeful), and a hilarious, hapless cast of political staffers. Scenes take you in and out of political press conferences, conspiratorial meetings in the VP’s back rooms, the Oval Office, and halls of Congress, and many a limo drive through the streets of Washington.
The third edition of the popular action role-playing game takes place in the year 2277, following a terrible world war and other apocalyptic maladies. The hyperrealistic, multiperson, multiperspective game uses a postapocalyptic D.C. and surrounding area—complete with a bombed and charred White House, Capitol Building, and other famous landmarks—as its backdrop.
Long Distance Life
Marita Golden’s novel centers around one family’s experience living in D.C. throughout the 20th century, but she vividly fills in the background with the complex history of black America as a whole. Naomi Johnson, the family’s matriarch (and first-person narrator of many chapters) moves from North Carolina to D.C. in 1926, and the novel continues from there to tell the hardships and joys of Naomi’s family throughout generations in the capital city.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
A refreshing break from the political circus of Capitol Hill, Dinaw Mengestu’s novel exists instead within the stores, restaurants, and homes of Northwest D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood. In a city of monuments and memorials to America’s (often constructed, embellished) past, and in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification, Sepha, an Ethiopian refugee, moves through the daily grind of being an American while haunted by memories of his home country. Through Sepha’s long talks and friendships with refugees from other African countries, Mengestu creates a gentle, moving portrait of the African diaspora in Washington.
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Robert Caro traces Johnson’s 1949 to 1960 career in the U.S. Senate as he faces all-too-familiar political challenges of policy making, across-aisle cooperation, and reconciling the desires of a rural Southern voter base with those of Washington’s leaders. Caro aggrandizes Johnson as a leader and strategic winner of Congress, all the while describing the intricacies and power plays in America’s legislative system.
The Maverick Room: Poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Poet Thomas Sayer Ellis grew up in D.C. in the 1960s and ’70s, when a musical movement called “Go-Go” originated in D.C.’s African American communities. Like “Go-Go” (a mix of funk, R&B, and early hip-hop), Ellis’s poetry is similarly rhythmic, energetic, and much more than just one thing. Ellis named his debut poetry collection after a famed D.C. Go-Go club, also the name for a section of the collection (the rest is divided into areas of D.C. geography).
This 2000 thriller combines political process and sex-driven scandal, when the Republican opposition digs into the past and private life of a female candidate for vice president. Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, and Sam Elliott play characters ranging from affable to immoral. The political sexism, cutthroat party alliances, and invasion of privacy nod to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the time—but the story still rings plenty true today.