Hollywood has yet to make a "great" movie about Washington. This is the cinematic corollary to the even hoarier cliche that the United States has yet to produce a great novel about the nation's capital. These cliches reign supreme because they happen to be true.
But the recently released "Thank You for Smoking" comes closer than most. Adapted from my friend Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name (that was name-dropping by the way; the full disclosure is that he's the son of William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, where I collect a paycheck), the movie isn't the much-yearned-for definitive Washington movie long foretold in prophecy. That movie, like the great Washington novel, will probably never materialize. But the success of "Thank You for Smoking" gives us some insight into why depicting Washington accurately is so hard.
In the 1990s, Hollywood produced a string of occasionally amusing but generally absurd films about politics and the presidency. "Dave," "The American President," "Bulworth," "Wag the Dog," "Air Force One" and so on. TV played its part too, starting in 1988 with "Murphy Brown" straight through the mercifully soon-to-end "The West Wing."
The 1990s were, after all, Washington's decade in Hollywood. Barbra Streisand honed the techniques she learned in "Yentl" - in which she played a woman disguised as a young male Talmudic student - and recast herself in the guise of a serious policy wonk. In hindsight, Don Knotts as Hercules would have been a more plausible transformation. But, hey, these were the '90s. Otherwise sharp people took Warren Beatty's talk of running for president seriously. Some folks didn't even spray hot coffee out their noses when they heard that Cybill Shepherd was pondering a presidential bid too.
A common theme in Hollywood's treatment of politics is the notion that people with "bad" ideas are also bad people. (To its credit, "West Wing" occasionally resisted this cliche, though usually to demonstrate that decent conservatives have the capacity to learn how wrong they are.)
Of course, this view is shared by many people outside of Hollywood as well. The problem is that it just doesn't jibe much with reality.