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.
As anyone who's spent time in D.C. can tell you, asininity, egotism and rudeness are fairly evenly distributed across the ideological spectrum. Some of the biggest jerks in Washington can be found spouting progressive nostrums about caring for the poor and the downtrodden. Similarly, some of the conservatives constantly invoking the Christian imperative to love one another can be found figuratively whacking their interns about the head with a hardcover edition of the New Testament for not properly trimming the crusts on their sandwiches.
The thing is, Hollywood already knew that about the religious conservatives. Showing "moral majority" types as closeted bigots, perverts and hypocrites is a grand cinematic pastime. What seems unfathomable to many liberals in Hollywood is that many religious conservatives are in fact decent, pleasant people and that nastiness is almost an entirely independent variable from ideology. Man-of-the-people Michael Moore is a notoriously nasty boss, while "virtuecrat" Bill Bennett is famously fun to work for.
The refreshing thing about "Thank You for Smoking" is that the most likable character is the most "evil" - by liberal standards at least. Tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, is a charming rogue who loves his son and doesn't apologize for his line of work. He never "sees the light" at the end of the movie, as Michael Douglas does in "Falling Down" when he realizes that, as an angry white male, he actually must be the villain. Rather, Naylor upholds a virtuous distinction that Hollywood liberals consider sacrosanct when it comes to sex but reject out of hand almost everywhere else: Something can be good - in this case, less smoking - without justifying government intrusions.
What's even more difficult for Hollywood to grasp is that government can't simply do whatever it chooses to do. Which is why, in Hollywood's Washington, speeches are usually a substitute for action. Douglas announces in "The American President" that we're "gonna get the guns" - i.e., all handguns in the United States - and that's supposed to settle the issue right there, hooray! In "Dave," Kevin Kline announces he's simply going to give every American a job because having a job is just so darn nice and good. Never mind that government-guaranteed employment is neither a new nor a particularly good idea. You could look it up.
In reality, the reason so little gets done in Washington is not because "bad" people are stopping the good people. It's because different groups of people have different definitions of what's good and what's bad. And even when they finally agree on something, its effect may well be negligible, unforeseen and slow to materialize. That's dull stuff for a movie, but not a bad way to run a country.