How accurate are portrayals of the White House by Hollywood? Some are good; some not so good. Here, you will find reviews of movies and television shows that feature the White House prominently and an evaluation of their accuracy. It should be noted that in the case of fictional stories, a fictional president is entitled to a fictional White House.
The American President — 1995
Audio commentary from Tysto.com with details about the White House scenes
(stars Michael Douglas and Annette Bening)
The movie The American President was written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writer of the later TV series The West Wing. The TV series would serve as a carry-on of unused written material from the movie. Any fans of the TV series will enjoy seeing cast members appearing in this film as well. Of all the films that focus on or at least involve the White House, The American President is one of the few that impresses the most in its attention to production-set detail. It's intriguing how often directors in other films involving the White House building don't pay attention to where people are walking according to the floor plan. For example, some would have folks strolling to meet the president in the Oval Office but have them walking towards and through the East Room. With the film The American President you don't see much of that inattention to detail. The opening scene in particular of the president's morning walk to the Oval Office is very hyper-detailed as it involves the Center Hall of the second floor, the Elevator, the ground floor corridor, the West Colonnade, right to the Oval Office. The office, right down to the grandfather clock, the Resolute Desk, the fireplace and the art, are all accurate to the last detail.
In some other examples of the film, the White House and West Wing are not hyper-accurate in their floor plan but they do such a good job it almost doesn't matter. The location of the Chief of Staff's office is a little-off and the look of the room substitutes some exterior windows with book shelves. The president's secretary's office has been extended to three sets of french doors instead of the actual two. The president and his chief of staff are shown playing pool in what must be the Treaty Room decorated in Clinton's chosen color of burgundy (but as wallpaper and not paint) displaying the painting Signing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and the United States, August 12, 1898 . In almost every other scene of the movie we find things to be quite accurate—the director even steering away from the oft-chosen route of setting an unlikely scene in a White House room. In this case the re-election war room is smartly placed where it belongs, in the Old Executive Office Building across the street.
This film is a real treat for White House enthusiasts in its detail. And you won't be disappointed when viewing the reproductions listed above as well as the Master Bedroom (with hidden closet), Cabinet Room, West Sitting Hall, East Wing Entrance, Green Room, Grand Staircase, state floor Entrance Hall, Situation Room, Press Briefing Room, Roosevelt Room, and a great scene in the China Room. This is a movie that can be trusted to give any White House buff their fill.
Backstairs at the White House — 1979
(stars Olivia Cole and Leslie Uggams)
Backstairs at the White House is a terrific mini-series based on My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House, the autobiography of Lillian Rogers Parks. Lillian and her mother Maggie worked at the White House from the Taft administration through the Eisenhowers. We see each first family in private moments, almost exclusively in the west end of the second floor. It's like every presidential anecdote from the period brought to life—Taft's tub, Wilson's wives, Harding's scandals, Coolidge's terseness (although we don't get the "you lose" anecdote), Hoover's aloofness, Roosevelt's relaxedness, Truman's familiarity, and Ike's regimentation—and everybody's thriftiness. The story focuses almost entirely on family drama, and the compressed nature of the story-telling makes it seem like White House occupants drop like flies. But there's plenty of presidential humor between funerals.
The series obviously didn't have a very big budget (my first jolt was seeing the real, modern White House south face—complete with Truman Balcony—as Maggie goes to work in 1909). Aside from a couple of apartments the Rogerses lived in, we only see a few White House second floor rooms, a bit of the third floor, and part of the Kitchen and Housekeeper's Office. The decor changes appropriately, although I can't vouch for the exact correctness of the furnishings (Mamie's bedroom compares favorably to a genuine photo). The pre-Truman layout seems accurate enough, although the elevator lobby seems backwards and never changes (the creators may have been mixing up the kitchen elevator with the Family Elevator). The post-Truman mansion looks pretty much exactly like the pre-Truman mansion, though, which is quite wrong, especially on the third floor, which never seems to be much more than an attic space.
In terms of protocol, the film depicts the West Sitting Room and Central Hall of the second floor virtually denuded with each administration. This is definitely not the case, at least for modern administrations, although it may have been more common in earlier times. And a coat room is depicted on the second floor, as if a counter was stood in front of the Treaty Room door and coats stored in the room during parties, but in fact the Family Theater was a cloak room from about 1902 to 1942.
The Birth of a Nation — 1915
(stars Henry B. Walthall and Lillian Gish)
DW Griffith's landmark—and horribly racist—epic about the Civil War and its aftermath, The Birth of a Nation depicts the office of Abraham Lincoln (today's Lincoln Bedroom) at certain points. A title card calls it "an historical facsimile of the President's Executive Office... after Nicolay and Hay in Lincoln, a History." (Griffith similarly introduces the Ford's Theatre and South Carolina legislature, which, in light of its depictions of blacks and the KKK, makes the film something of a very careful and painstaking mockery of a historical documentary.)
The president's office does seem to be faithful representation, at least as depicted in available etchings, although laid out somewhat backward. The one photo of Lincoln in the room shows a patterned wallpaper, but the etchings and Griffith's set have plain walls. Lincoln sits at a table before the fireplace, surrounded by a tableau of staff and Congressional supporters, signing a call for volunteers to fight the coming war. When the room clears through the door to the waiting room (today's East Sitting Hall, but which should be a window, if the fireplace were in the right place), we get a better view of the door to the vestibule (today's Treaty Room), the fireplace—which seems accurate from the oblique angle—and the other door to the vestibule which was blocked by the tall standing desk until Lincoln built the private passage.
Lincoln, for what it's worth, is depicted as a wise and reasonable man intent on welcoming the South back into the Union without punishment. White Southerners are shown bewailing his assassination... and then they create the Ku Klux Klan and "heroically" keep black people from voting and leering at white women. It is a disgusting story that even Griffith was embarrassed by eventually. It is however a brilliant film in terms of technique and one that is important in the history of cinema. Of course, the model T was brilliant and important in the history of the automobile, and no one is recommending you drive one now.
The Contender — 2000
(stars Gary Oldman and Joan Allen)
When a movie depicts the White House so ridiculously incorrectly as The Contender, it's not always the production designer's fault. I'm sure lots of these designers would go the extra-mile to create anything as accurately as possible, but when you have a director and a producer controlling the cash you sometimes have to work with what you're given. So I give the designers credit for trying.
Much of the Oval Office scenes were shot at the New Millennium Studios. The first real shots of the White House begin with a shot of the Oval Office ceiling which is supposed to show the Seal of the United States, but in fact what they replicated was the Seal of the President of the United States complete with text. The outer Secretary's Office is unimpressive and perhaps far too big. The Oval Office is a fine replica for the most part however a copy of the Resolute desk was not used here. The Cabinet Room is a very poor replica that really doesn't hint at any accuracy except for the fact that there is a conference table in the room.
Other scenes occur in places like the Bowling Alley which seem realistic enough in the décor. There's one scene in what seems to be a hall of paintings like the Entrance Hall and Cross Hall but it's far from accurate and is uninspiring. At least the paintings are accurate. They even have one scene which would seem to be the East Room but it's just far too small and they erroneously put Healy's Lincoln portrait in there.
The biggest chunk of the White House exterior shots were actually of the Virginia State Capitol and really make sense when you think of how to find a suitable second choice for filming. It really is a remarkable likeness of the texture and flavor of the White House exterior.
Of all of the White House movies I've seen this one scores the lowest for accuracy. To be fair, it makes a decent effort for the budget, but it was disappointing for this White House fanatic.
Dave — 1993
(stars Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver)
In Dave, Kevin Kline plays dual roles as the stiff, callous, and philandering President Mitchell and a soft-spoken temp agency manager and occasional presidential impersonator named Dave Kovic. When the president suffers a stroke, crafty chief of staff Frank Langella concocts a plan to get the vice-president out of the way and make himself president. He just needs Dave to replace the president for a little while. The film was directed by Ivan Reitman and features Sigourney Weaver as the estranged but leggy first lady. A great deal of the film takes place in the White House, so the movie is a treat for any enthusiast despite its occasionally awkward deviations from the real thing.
The story starts off with Marine One landing on the south lawn and the president and first lady warmly entering White House through a very good South Portico set created by J Michael Riva and his production design team. But the ground floor Center Hall they then coldly separate in is a poor match for the real thing, looking rather more ornate and European.
We see President Mitchell pass briefly through the West Wing offices and bully some advisers in a good Cabinet Room set. But after the president's stroke, Dave is brought to the Oval Office, and we get a much better look at the room and its beautiful tan rug with golden brown great seal with dark green ring that matches the curtains. The proportions and decor seem right, including the Resolute desk and a cropped version of the Chessman-Trumbull portrait of General Washington over the mantel.
From there, we go immediately to the second floor of the Residence, where the Grand Stair is backwards, but the Central Hall is quite good. The first couple sleep on opposite sides of the second floor, and the first lady's room is in the Treaty Room redecorated. The president's southwest suite has apparently been drastically remodeled by the Mitchells, with the closets eliminated, decorative columns installed, and the wall separating the Master Bedroom and Dressing Room removed. It's beautifully furnished with green silk wall coverings, traditional white wainscoting, and gold curtains. Strangely, the historic Lansdowne portrait of Washington hangs over the mantel.
Next, we see the Press Briefing Room a couple of times (with odd doorways) and more of the simplified West Wing. Not long after, Dave meets with the first lady in the Yellow Oval Room, which the Mitchells have papered with American landscapes similar to the Diplomatic Reception Room and furnished with a dining room table (loosely approximating the appearance of the Private Dining Room with the American Revolution wallpaper). The room is used several more times, including to host a children's party featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger giving dietary advice.
After Dave and First Lady Ellen Mitchell appear on the Truman Balcony to reassure the public, Dave uses it at night to peek into the first lady's bedroom. Then, in a ground floor Kitchen that looks like it's stuck in 1933, Dave makes a sandwich, apparently unaware that the second floor has had its own Family Kitchen since the Kennedy administration.
Later, we find Dave in what looks to be the president's study, a handsome room with dark wainscoting, deep red walls, and rich leather furniture (and a portrait of Ike in uniform); the location of it is not established but is apparently the Living Room. After a pleasant day with underprivileged children, the first lady bursts in on Dave while he's showering to complain about his vetoing their funding. This wonderful space is a great improvement over the bathroom used by most real presidents. It has a black marble tub by a window, glassed-in shower flanked by closet doors, and a brass-and-leather barber chair. The establishing shot suggests that it occupies the place of the Living Room, but the window and door clues put it in place of the West Sitting Hall!
Once Dave finds funding for the children again, the first lady warms to him and detects his ruse. Together, they take the Family Elevator—paneled fairly accurately—to the bunker-like subbasement, where the real president is being maintained on a respirator. Deciding they both need to leave, they venture down a dank tunnel under the White House to Lafayette Park. When they decide to return after all, we get a better look at the second floor Central Hall and find that not only the West Sitting Hall (which is now President Mitchell's bathroom) but also the East Sitting Hall have been walled off.
In one of the film's best-known scenes, Bonnie Hunt conducts a guided tour of the state floor ("We're walking.... We're walking....") with a Cross Hall that looks pretty much like the ground floor: overly ornate and European. One of the oddest moments comes at the end; as political machinations play out and the "president" gets into legal hot water, he is seen relaxing and watching television on a couch in the Oval Office.
Eleanor and Franklin — 1976 & 1977
(stars Jane Alexander and Edward Hermann)
Eleanor and Franklin; The Early Years and Eleanor and Franklin; The White House Years were two mini-series directed by Donald Petrie in 1976 and 1977 respectively, produced for ABC television with production design by Jan Scott.
The Early Years, winner of 11 Emmy Awards and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture made for Television (1976), is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning biography by Joseph Lash. Many consider it among the finest mini-series in television history, not only for the superior writing and acting, but for the exemplary production values and the beautiful musical score by John Barry. Be that as it may, only a few White House interiors were attempted here, and rather badly: the Grand Stairs, the Central Hall and the First Lady’s Sitting Room (today’s Master Bedroom) are nothing like they are in the actual White House of the FDR era. That is about the only objection to this masterful and visually stunning mini-series. It is crucial to watch it first, however, before turning to the sequel.
The White House Years also took away a number of Emmys (7) and featured many White House interiors as visualized by Jan Scott with set decoration by Anne D McCulley. The opening scenes show Eleanor and Franklin in 1905, shortly before their wedding, paying a social call on President Theodore Roosevelt (Eleanor’s uncle) at the White House. They arrive in a carriage filmed before the actual White House, where the gates are opened for them to enter (one does, however, glimpse parked cars in the distance on Lafayette Square). The North Portico entry was re-created in smaller scale for several shots here throughout the film. The Entrance Hall is again, smaller-than-life scale. The intercolumniation of the McKim interior is not correct. A crystal chandelier hangs where the lantern ought to be. The whole has the look of an interior shot for some other White House film and re-dressed to serve here (a golden curtain covers the opening where the 1952 Grand Stair would be). The East Room seems half-scale and has far too many windows. The mantelpieces are curiously placed; but the golden curtains of Teddy Roosevelt and the later crimson ones of the FDR era appear in due course. The Cross Hall, elevator and even the Grand Stair are all depicted with some license.
The Second Floor Center Hall set appears to have all the real architectural elements. However, it is filled with Victorian furnishings and lit with large hanging lamps (yards of chintz and floor lamps were used here in the FDR years). The Oval Study (Yellow Oval Room) seems very exact, except for the absence of the Resolute Desk and the unusually wide door to the Center Hall. The layout of the private rooms (President’s Bedroom and Bath, First Lady’s Sitting Room and Dressing Room are all very much as they were before the 1948-52 Renovation. Walls covered with photos and simple furnishings just as the Roosevelts used appear to fill the spaces.
A wide archway between the First Lady’s Sitting Room and Dressing/Bed Room is a product of pure whimsy; perhaps to better accommodate cameras. The President’s Bathroom features a small stained-glass window that would have been impossible in this isolated interior room. The architectural details of windows, wainscoting and doors are very good; but the mantelpieces are nothing like what was here at the time. There is a fleeting glimpse of the Blue Room with only the wall color accurate to the FDR years.
The second installment of the story is almost as good as the first. Both are available on DVD and are truly remarkable television adaptations of the lives of these two fascinating White House residents and those whose lives they touched.
Fail-Safe — 1964
(stars Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, and Walter Matthau)
Directed by Sidney Lumet, Fail-Safe is a Cold War drama detailing a fictional incident in which an American nuclear bomber squadron is set on a course to attack the Soviet Union by an electronic malfunction. Henry Fonda plays a Truman-like president wrestling with a military air command he barely understands, and Walter Matthau plays a hawkish political scientist (modeled on Herman Kahn). It's a tense thriller, without a lick of music in the picture, and skillfully ratchets up the tension at every turn.
For obvious reasons, most of the drama plays out in the White House Situation Room and at Strategic Air Command. We see the president, having been notified that something is amiss, enter what is probably supposed to be the West Wing elevator from a corridor, but the corridor is broad and high and finished with Empire chandeliers like a hall in the Residence.
In a rather silly moment, Russian translator Buck (a young Larry Hagman) is accosted by a Secret Service agent for ID and a look at an identifying scar(!), even though he has been summoned by the president and they are standing right outside his White House office door, complete with a nameplate that says, "Mr. Buck."
The elevator has very utilitarian doors at front and back and descends several floors to a sub-basement. The president and staff exit to the hub of a multi-spoke bunker complex that is probably supposed to be the Situation Room (perhaps combined with the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the East Wing). A computer room can be seen in the background, although teletype machines would have been more realistic.
The president and his translator are left alone in a bare, cell-like room with industrial ventilation and the most dramatic fluorescent lighting ever. And there they spend the rest of the film, making phone calls to try to resolve the situation while the Pentagon and SAC get sophisticated video screens and speaker phones. The impractical nature of a bunker with a handset telephone and virtually no staff is less important than the isolation the space represents, and Fonda overcomes the awkwardness with a calm and very presidential manner.
Matthau, on the other hand, gives several hilariously emotionless and calculating speeches about the advantages of total war and the emotionless, calculating nature of communists. And the president's secure line to the Kremlin looks like a cross between a telephone, an adding machine, and a fire hydrant (it was designed for demolition sites where explosives are used). Even so, such flaws are outweighed by the human drama of, for example, fighter planes silently disappearing from radar as they run out of fuel and crash into the sea and the bomber commander's wife pleading with him while he continues to evade Russian fighters. A badly dated thriller, yes; but still chilling.
Gore Vidal’s Lincoln — 1988
(stars Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore)
As a native of Illinois, I have always had great interest in Abraham Lincoln. I have on tape the TV presentation Gore Vidal's Lincoln. I noted that they really didn't use much care in portraying the White House. It was apparent that they were using an existing mansion for the scenes.
However, they gave the false impression that Lincoln's cabinet room was on the main floor, that Lincoln's office was a different room, the upstairs oval room, and that it looked out over the north front. They used the current design of the Oval Office, using Victorian furniture. Even a superficial reading of any book on Lincoln would have given them the proper directions.
Independence Day — 1996
(stars Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum)
Well folks, this is the nightmare scenario; our favorite building being blown up by aliens. Of course it's not the real thing but this entertaining film about combat with aliens bent on overtaking earth has some pretty decent shots of the White House before the director has the little green men turning it into a pile of debris.
Our first glimpse of the White House takes place during the waking hours in the Master Bedroom with President Thomas J. Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman). The room looks pretty good with attention to the neat closet areas with the hidden doors just like the real thing, and they even have accurate reproductions of artwork like The Mosquito Net by John Singer Sargent. Whitmore then strolls through the second floor Center Hall, again with accurate artwork and furnishings, and the layout of the hall looks to be very accurate. However, instead of sitting down in the Private Dining Room, he goes to what appears to be the East Sitting Hall which is furnished as a dining area to eat his breakfast. The director seems to have taken some design license with the area that would be the Queens' Bedroom removing some walls and opening up the area to the north of the East Sitting Hall. It's probable that the main star of this moment is the fan-window so it's an understandable visual to include in the shot to let the viewer know that this is indeed the White House. The replica of the Family Elevator is quite good with the doors including the two oval windows.
The Oval Office replica is great. Paintings look good such as Avenue in the Rain and The President's House, as well as the required Bronco Buster sculpture by Frederic Remington. The couches look to be of the Clinton color scheme and the oval rug looks to be the simple two-tone blue and gold seen during the Nixon years. They even have the patterned hard-wood flooring correct. And the north doors of the Oval Office have the hidden quality of the real thing. We only get a look at one hallway leading to the Oval Office but it seems accurate enough. We also get a glimpse of the Cabinet Room that looks very good and even has the back of the president's chair a few inches taller than the others, just like the real thing.
The only inaccuracies seem to be the Press Briefing Room which doesn't look much like the real thing and is far too big. It seems that if you want a convincing briefing room, you only need to have a blue curtain with a White House logo hanging in the back. And at times the second floor of the residence has too much activity with staffers walking around. You get the impression that some aides are walking into the Master Bedroom to make photocopies. In one of our last looks at the White House we catch a short glimpse of the Diplomatic Reception Room foyer which instead of having the Views of North America wallpaper, the walls are lemon yellow. But it's still a convincing interpretation. Once outside we see that the south portico area of the house exterior looks very accurate.
And then the inevitable destruction occurs. But before that moment we get to see what amounts to a great job by the production design team to give us a realistic, warm, and entertaining White House.
Kisses for My President — 1964
(stars Polly Bergen and Fred MacMurray)
Kisses for My President stars Polly Bergen as the first female President of the US and Fred
The Entrance Hall, Cross Hall, and Grand Staircase are very, very well done. The East Room is also quite well done, the only apparent difference on a quick viewing being modified crystal chandeliers. The Family Dining Room is also featured and, again, at least after a quick view, seems fairly accurate to the period, although there are no panoramic shots or sweeps to the ceiling to show if the designers have included the vault.
As to the second floor, the Yellow Oval Room is re-done as a kind of family room, but opens correctly in sequence to the President's Bedroom, the First Lady's Bedroom, and the First Lady's hall to her Dressing Room. The door from the President's Bedroom to the First Lady's Bedroom is situated wrongly, but the First Lady's Bedroom does duplicate the apse at the northern end and is generally a good copy. They also include the West Sitting Hall though it is depicted merely in passing.
The Oval Office is also well done and seems on first glance accurate.
Murder at 1600 — 1997
(stars Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane)
Audio commentary from Tysto.com with details about the White House scenes
Wesley Snipes is a DC homicide detective who gets called in—over the objections of the Secret Service—by the National Security Adviser to investigate a murder in a lavatory in the White House. Diane Lane gets assigned as his Secret Service liaison, and the two investigate the murder and the conspiracy—or conspiracies—surrounding it.
Since the murder takes place inside the White House, we see a fair amount of the mansion, but nowhere near as much as you might expect. Our first look is of the Oval Office—looking quite like the Clinton Oval Office—as the female victim-to-be has a tryst with an unknown man right on the president's desk while portraits of Washington and Jefferson appear to leer. When we see her next, she is sprawled on the floor of a large lavatory. The Secret Service detail springs into action to secure the mansion, and we get quick looks at the Roosevelt Room—mistakenly made into a kind of hall—the Oval Office again, Grand Stair, and a room where a janitor is polishing a table with buffer pads on his hands and knees. Characters later say that he was found in the East Room (which has no table), but it's unclear if they are purposely covering up that he was found in the State Dining Room, which is a closer fit to the tables and chairs we see.
When Wesley Snipes' characters enters the White House from the east and through the East Room, we see that the lavatory crime scene is located where the Family Dining Room should be. We get very good and accurate views of the Cross Hall and Grand Stair, but the Elevator Hall and Ushers' Room are made into anonymous spaces.
Later, we see more of the Oval Office and corridors of the West Wing. The corridors don't correspond well to the real West Wing and include the portraits of Liberty and/or Union personified, which belong in the Palm Room. When Wesley Snipes eventually returns to the White House, he does so through a series of tunnels from Lafayette Park, which the characters claim are the results of a water purification system added by Eisenhower and an escape tunnel created by Lincoln. This gives us glimpses of random basement and ground floor spaces in the mansion, including the good-but-overlarge Kitchen and the laundry. A scene in family elevator gets the doors wrong and adds upholstered panels inside the wood-paneled elevator that actually look rather nice.
Additionally, early in the film, we see Snipes' apartment, where he has built a huge diorama of the area around the White House in 1861, including as far as the incomplete Washington Monument. A good look at the model White House shows it with a period roof line but an inaccurate long east terrace and a small West Wing that resembles the 1902 East Wing. In 1861, there was a small east entrance, conservatories around the west terrace, a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the north lawn, and several outbuildings, including the stables that burned during Lincoln's time and killed Tad and Willie's ponies.
Overall, the depiction is rather haphazard, but the Oval Office, Cross Hall, and Grand Stair are very well done, and the rest is convincing, if not very accurate. The film maintains a good pace and isn't too predictable, although some of the characterizations are ham-handed, particularly the stiff and ruthless White House chief of security.
Nixon — Director's Cut, 1995
(stars Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen)
Of the films that depict the White House, few can top the quality of reproduction of the house itself and the West Wing than Oliver Stone's Nixon – Director's Cut with 28 added minutes. With that much more time, it does make for more torture for any White House buff that has to wait to see details of the building. The opening scenes of the film show Alexander Haig (played by Powers Boothe) arriving at the White House and curiously entering through the North Entrance of the Residence. He then proceeds to walk into the Entrance Hall and then to the East Room. It's a puzzling route to take to see President Nixon who is waiting for Haig in the Lincoln Sitting Room upstairs on the Second Floor. This type of inattention to where actors stroll happens often but the film is nonetheless gratifying to any White House buff.
For the first third of the film we see Nixon mostly in his private office at the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House. But the best moments do finally arrive and they don't disappoint. We get great views of a wonderful replica of the Oval Office in Nixon's time right down to the plain-gold drapes and the uninteresting version of the dark-blue and gold oval rug. Every aspect of this Oval Office replica satisfies including the detail of the fireplace, the selected works of art and the fact that Nixon didn't use the Resolute Desk in this room. Stone even took steps to ensure accuracy of the President's Private Study and Dining Room next to the Oval Office as well as wonderful replicas of the Roosevelt Room complete with the Theodore Roosevelt painting by Tade Styka. Even the surrounding hallways of the West Wing are detailed with the arched ceilings and we get short glimpses of the President's Personal Secretary's Office.
In many instances Stone taking the time and money to detail every piece of decorative woodwork and molding we've grown so fond of seeing in pictures. And this film shows pretty much all of it. We see great replicas of Nixon's bedroom (the current Living Room next to the Master Bedroom), the Cabinet Room, the Private Dining Room, the West Sitting Hall, the State Floor Cross Hall, the Lincoln Sitting Room, the East Room and the Master Bedroom. In one night-time scene, Nixon is in what would seem to be the Family Kitchen on the second floor but in the film it's far too large and it didn't seem to be the Ground Floor or State Floor Kitchens. Perhaps Stone exercised some creative design license with the size of the kitchen for the sake of more space since those areas are in pretty narrow in real life.
If you appreciate the esthetic detail of the White House and the classic scenes showing presidential paintings, then you'll love Nixon. It's a gem that any White House fan will treasure to have in their home DVD library.
The Sentinel — 2006
(stars Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland)
Audio commentary from Tysto.com with details about the White House scenes
For everything we do know about the U.S Secret Service there is much more than we still don't know. The Sentinel takes us deep into the workings of this secretive branch of the government. We see a great deal of detail as to what we've been able to learn over the years, yet in order to preserve secrecy and security of the real White House, we must in many instances rely on artistic license. We start out seeing Agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) in his daily routine and commute to the White House starting with what has grown to be more and more widely viewed as part of the White House grounds—Lafayette Park. In reality, President Clinton closed the block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicle traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing. In front of the White House we get a close-up glimpse of the north security gate which pans over to the roof of the Residence and what in my view is a creative interpretation of what the various building features jutting from the roof are used for.
Inside the Residence, we get to see a quick but good glimpse of the Master Bedroom and the Elevator. However as we see the Elevator on the state floor they incorrectly put it facing south. The next scene puts us right into the Secret Service Office in the West Wing ground floor which also carries the designation W16. As the West Wing goes, the Secret Service Office is probably one of the biggest rooms, but it sure looks too big in the movie.
Our first view of the West Wing first floor shows the president exiting the elevator which has been incorrectly placed in what appears to be where the West Wing Lobby. The replica of the Oval Office looks quite nice and seems to me hints of the decor of the Kennedy color-scheme. We get no views of any other rooms of the West Wing, and there seems to be no attention to detail with regard to the West Wing floor plan.
In the Residence we see other excellent replicas. The president holds a press conference in the Cross Hall/Entrance Hall and the attention to detail is really impressive. The second floor of the Residence we get to see the West Sitting Hall many times, and it is an excellent replica as to where the Master Bedroom is, the furniture, the paintings, and of course the much needed fan window if you want to convince people that this is indeed the White House. But to save money, they make it appear as though the West Sitting Hall is a room that elbows off of another hallway, rather than a part of once-long corridor running the length of the building.
At the end of the film, we have Pete Garrison leaving the same way we saw him arriving at the start of the movie, by walking past the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Park. As he's walking, we see the first lady watching him from the West Sitting Hall fan window, impossible to do since the window faces west and not north towards the park.
The proof of a good White House movie is how little the White House fan reacts with a frustrating "arrrrrg" when they see things done wrong. I did very little of that here even though there were some small differences. I enjoyed this movie, and I feel the producer did a great job making their White House a convincing copy.
The Simpsons Movie — 2007
(stars Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner)
Although it's not a real "White House movie," The Simpsons Movie includes several scenes in the Oval Office with "President Schwarzenegger" (Harry Shearer) blindly choosing between several equally-dire alternatives. First, we see an establishing shot of the north face, which looks good but has too many windows. The real White House has four windows on the main floors on either side of the North Portico, but the movie version has five.
The proportions of the Oval Office are right, but the sofas are too far apart in a couple of angles. The blind doors on the north side have been turned into normal doors, and the east side doors to the Rose Garden have been shifted to accommodate bookcases like those on the west side.
There is a naval painting over the mantle, which is appropriately Kennedy-esque for the husband of Maria Shriver, but I don't think any previous president has actually had a nameplate on his desk; it seems... unnecessary. However, in the case of Schwarzenegger, it might be needed to ensure that his staff can spell his name consistently.
The rug is very Clinton-esque, which is no surprise, given that Clinton's rug has become the one most associated with the Oval Office. The navy blue oval with gold presidential seal has been copied for The American President, The West Wing, and others. The curtains are non-descript beige and the desk seems to be an ordinary green-leather topped desk and not the Resolute.
Thirteen Days — 2001
(stars Kevin Costner)
13 Days is a dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of the Kennedy White House. It is another great opportunity to see some of our favorite places of the White House. And the director and production team do a great job of recreating them. During the opening moments we get a tour of the building from the perspective of president Kennedy's Chief of Staff Kenny O'Donnell (played by Kevin Costner) as he arrives for work at the West Wing and goes for a stroll to meet with Kennedy in the Residence. We start by getting a fantastic (albeit computer generated) recreation of the West Wing exterior looking northeast. We see O'Donnell arrive in his office which today is the President's Private Dining Room. We then see Kennedy's Oval Office which is very impressive given that the director saw to it that it was accurate right-down to the Naval subject matter in the paintings, the Resolute Desk, Kennedy's rocking-chair, and appears to use the Truman/Eisenhower décor.
O'Donnell strolls through the Secretary's Office followed by the West Colonnade, then the Ground Floor Corridor of the Residence; all very accurate looking with great attention to room location and the path one would take in such a journey from the West Wing to the Residence. We then exit the Elevator into the Center Hall where we see a great replica of the West Sitting Hall complete with the fan-window. We then get a glimpse of the Jackie's bedroom, today's Master Bedroom, as well as John Kennedy's bedroom, today's Living Room.
The rest of the movie's White House scenes for the most part take place in the West Wing. We see mostly Kennedy and his EXCOM team in the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office. The Cabinet Room is wonderful to see and certainly looks like the real thing. According to a former Situation Room director, Kennedy didn't use the Situation Room very often in the crisis except on a few occasions especially to read the print off the teletype. We even get a very short glimpse of the "Fish Room" (Roosevelt Room) where the director even saw to it that Kennedy's prize swordfish was included in the room's décor. In many other instances we see some liberties taken with the layout of the West Wing hallways and the specific design of the Lobby, but since all of the essentials are there right down to presidential paintings and busts, it truly is still a great interpretation of the building.
13 Days hits the mark ensuring that the building itself matched the attention to maintaining the detail of the events that unfolded within. I give the production designers and director top-marks for their representation of this historic and wonderful building.
W — 2008
(stars Josh Brolin)
W is a character study of George W Bush and, ostensibly, a wry, dark comedy. Its history may be reasonably good, but its humor is weak and timid. Worse, for the White House enthusiast, it's a serious let-down.
Since the film is a slanted study of what made George W Bush president and what made President Bush a failure, many scenes depict the protagonist before going to the White House and later away at his Crawford Ranch. The several scenes that are set in the White House include a few in a very good replica of the Oval Office (complete with a replica of Bush's A Charge to Keep painting) and a very good Situation Room (although it doubles as its earlier self during the Bush 1 administration, where it's a little less accurate).
However, the rest of the White House is depicted as vague "fancy" rooms and corridors that don't correspond to the real thing at all. There are a couple of scenes in a dining room that is supposed to represent the president's private dining room in the Residence, but is laid out differently, appears to be on the first floor, and has wallpaper depicting cows and gentlemen in very European pastoral scenes. The famous American Revolution wallpaper in the second floor dining room was covered up by the Clintons and changed again by the Bushes around 2004.
We also see several offices and corridors in the West Wing that only vaguely resemble the real thing. The vice-president's office during Bush 1's time appears to be the Cabinet Room, complete with oval-topped French doors. It's dressed a little more accurately as Cheney's office later, with an old map behind the desk similar to the Civil War map Cheney used. This would be foregiveable if the set was also used as the Cabinet Room, but it's not. We never see the Bush Cabinet Room.
At the end, we see the Press Briefing Room, which is a good match, and the Entrance Hall, which isn't remotely close. It has an extra staircase and a curving staircase that aren't at all accurate. We don't even get significant shots of the exterior of the mansion. The film is interested only in mocking the internal psychology of its main character, and frankly fails to do that in an especially entertaining way.
The West Wing — season 1, 1999
(stars Martin Sheen)
Whether you love or hate NBC's The West Wing, if you're a fan of the White House building and the actual West Wing (AWW) you'll likely enjoy the show's representation of the real thing. For folks like myself who research/seek to understand every square foot of the AWW (and notice every wall sconce that is out of place) it can drive you nuts to see how inaccurate the floor plan and the room detail of the replica in the TV series compares with the real thing. But when producers take care to stay true to the essence of the contents of the building and include the staple items like presidential paintings, busts and furnishings, you may find yourself forgiving the items or rooms that seem out of place.
Actor Bradley Whitford, who plays Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman, once said that one of the inaccurate aspects of the show is the bustle you see of staffers and interns by the dozens moving at high pace throughout the halls. And not only that, the series producers made the hallways much larger than the real thing and removed many walls and created large open office areas that don't really exists in the AWW. And rather than show the second floor of the WW complex, producers made the first floor much more sprawling and can sometimes leave you with the impression that the west perimeter of the building encroaches into the middle of West Executive Drive. Rather than going with the accurate narrow and confining stairwell of the AWW, the producers built a large, inviting, and ornate open-staircase to the basement offices and Situation Room.
In one of the opening scenes of the first episode of season one, we see one long shot of the chief of staff arriving in the North Lobby and taking us through the many areas of the first floor on his way to his office. We see a beautiful replica of the Kennedy version of the Lobby that was much larger and ornate with columns and floor space. In reality the Lobby today is far smaller to make room for more office space. We also get a walk through of the Roosevelt Room, which has been totally modified in the interest of drama and atmosphere to include burgundy walls, numerous columns and several sets of French doors. The Roosevelt Room of TV land bears little resemblance to the real thing, but it is awesome to see. And totally absent is the Cabinet Room which has been redone as what is named "The Mural Room" that looks quite like the décor of the Diplomatic Reception Room from the Residence.
So that he can have easy access to his boss, the chief of staff's office is depicted in what is actually the President's Private Dining Room. Rather than accurately showing the Vice President's Office or the National Security Advisor's Office, they've been replaced to put greater emphasis on the speech writers and the political advisors. And the Press Secretary's Office is completely inaccurate and is situated far from where the AWW would show it. In season one of the series even the Press Briefing Room is poorly depicted, no doubt a result of the producer's limited budget at the time. In some scenes we get to see a more dramatic interpretation of the Situation Room Conference Room that is much larger and boasts numerous large high res video screens and communications gadgets that we don't see in the real thing. According to one former Situation Room director, the telephone in the real Conference Room barely ever gets used.
The Oval Office replica is wonderful and is essentially accurate. We find a very good-looking copy of the Resolute Desk and the oval rug and couch colors are near-perfect copies of the Clinton era. The fireplace looks great; however, the doors on either side are not "hidden" like the real thing, but are fully-visible panel doors with surrounding molding. Outside the Oval Office we have a very good recreation of the West Colonnade except that the walkway is noticeably narrower and the portion running west/east is only 30 feet, much less than the actual approximately 120 feet.
Because the show focuses the West Wing staff, we see very little of the Residence. Some Residence scenes do occur in the Master Bedroom and the West Sitting Hall, but it can drive a White House buff bonkers to see the producers butcher the floor plan by having people walk through puzzlingly long hallways that don't exist on the Second Floor. But the producers did indeed do a great job coming up with a warm attractive dramatic West Wing and although I've pointed to many inaccuracies here, it's a satisfying ride, but if I had my way I would be more satisfied with a hyper-accurate floor plan being presented.
The West Wing — season 2, 2000
(stars Martin Sheen)
Money. You've got a great idea like a concept for a television show, but the one thing you lack is money. This is exactly what Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writer of NBC's The West Wing, had to deal with as he was developing this show years ago. And while he did succeed in getting the executives to buy into his vision, the money didn't necessarily come flowing out of the vaults in season one like a giant wave. Rather than build one large set, the producers opted to build different sections of the West Wing building on separate lots to save money just in case the show didn't take off. In fact in many scenes we see characters walking through doorways, which in reality is just carefully choreographed and edited jumps from one production lot to the next.
Not a great deal changed in season two except for the fact that a commitment was made and executed to make the entire West Wing building set in one area. During season one, we got to see many interesting rooms like the Situation Room, and the Navy Mess, but we never really saw how the system of hallways laid out to get us there. This time we get to see more of exactly that—a dramatic tour of the director's vision of how the fictional President Bartlett's West Wing should look. So we get more great long-dialog shots where a staffer will walk from the Roosevelt Room all the way to the Situation Room taking us through the maze that is the West Wing.
In this season we also see a properly designed and built Press Briefing Room. However the director still saw to it that it would not be situated anywhere near its real-life location. We have one scene where the chief of staff is told a Russian government official is waiting for him at the West Wing north entrance, so the Chief of Staff incorrectly looks out his window towards the south and there he sees the north entrance. We still see a lot of that in season two—a floor plan and layout that favors the dramatic rather than fact, and that's okay because they capture the essence of the building and the weight of the decisions made in it so well.
As was true in season one, we also see in season two that the focus needed to be on the activities of the West Wing, so nothing new to show or see with regard to the main part of the White House Residence. The more I watch this show, the more I like the director's interpretation of what the interior of the West Wing should look like, and I've often wondered if actual White House staffers wished the actual West Wing was laid out like the TV version. I sure like it, but that never stops me from being fascinated by the real West Wing and it's undramatic hallways and stairwells. David Gergen, who served as a White House advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton said that he likes NBC's The West Wing but one of the inaccuracies is the personal interaction and the "discussing of personal lives/dating/love life" that goes on in the show.
This is simply a great show in its production value, even with its inaccuracies, the commitment to quality is simply superb. Based solely on the production layout, even I have to admit, I'd rather work in the Bartlett West Wing than the real thing.
The West Wing — season 3, 2001
(stars Martin Sheen)
One can truly say that it is untrue that the President of the United States is chained to his desk. He has the opportunity and the duty to travel the country and the world as he carries out his oath of office. Which makes it worth while to note how well producers recreated the president's private jet Air Force One. They did a wonderful job capturing the key components of this amazing airplane. We get a great view of the forward living quarters, the president's private office, the conference room and the staff's seating area. There are some inaccuracies such as the orientation of the conference room as well as the recreation of the president's office, but their locations within the floor plan are essentially correct.
Given the recent news that the real-life White House Situation Room has undergone an esthetic and technical renovation it's worth while to note that Hollywood's long-time depiction of a sensationalized and technically marvelous Sit Room is now closer in accuracy to the real thing. As shown in the TV show, the Sit Room has various large screens, several digital clocks, and a conference table wired with various phones and communications devices. When viewing photos of the actual Sit Room renovation, it certainly starts to become clear that the real Sit Room is beginning to reflect how Hollywood has always thought it should look and operate.
While it's not new to Season 3, we also get scenes that occur in the Navy Mess within the ground floor of the West Wing. I believe this recreation was intended to reflect what it may have looked like after the FDR renovation that included a sunken courtyard with windows in the middle of the Mess. It's clear from the way that the scenes play out that the Mess is situated in the West Wing "basement" yet the Mess is arrayed with some windows that allow sunlight to enter the area. They could have put the Mess anywhere but trying to stay true to reality they rightfully put it on the ground floor.
Throughout Season 3 we see many meetings and diplomatic exchanges in chambers that aren't obviously signature White House rooms, but have a great feel of class and elegance and attention to history. These are not cheap stage-sets. These rooms are elegant, colorful and inspiring. And to give the rooms a legitimate White House flair, the production designers take steps to ensure that every painting recreated in the West Wing is a recognizable signature work of art that any White House buff could enjoy.
It's so nice to see that over the first few seasons, the studio and producers saw to it that a reasonable expense and attention to detail was paid to recreating the White House and in particular the West Wing. I once again give them top-marks for their efforts.
The West Wing — seasons 4-6, 2002-2004
(stars Martin Sheen)
Season Two of NBC's The West Wing saw the producers finally being able to put the entire West Wing set on to one stage. Gone were the days of splicing one shot into another as actors moved from stage set to stage set. And that one large set went largely unchanged from year to year. And that's a big reason why it was so difficult to review seasons four and five respectively since so little would be of notable change. Let's just say that while nothing was new or different in season four or five, it's still an amazing set.
And so here we are in season six, and we do indeed start to see some new and exciting things. It would seem that at some point in time to liven up the visual, the producers convinced NBC to let them start to build replicas of rooms in the residence. In the episode "The Hubbert Peak" we find the president walking down an excellent reproduction of the Grand Staircase and into the equally amazing Entrance Hall, Cross Hall, and East Room. Everything in these scenes looks very well done. You really don't see anything that would hint of cutting corners as to design. It's like President Bartlett is in the real White House.
Interestingly enough, in order to save money, these same replicated areas would be redecorated and double for other sets to accommodate later scenes. In the episode "Drought Conditions" it becomes obvious that what they call the Grand Hotel lobby is actually the Cross Hall and Entrance Hall sets. Even the hotel staircase is obviously the same Grand Staircase set. It works for the scene, but any White House buff knows their favorite setting when the see it.
In what would seem to be the most interesting alternate use of a room set, in the episode Impact Winter where the president visits China, they use a redecorated East Room disguised to look like a Chinese diplomatic state room. The first time I saw this episode it fooled me, but follow-up viewings made for interesting a-ha! moments.
The one highly unlikely and laughable moment for me this time around was the scene where the Situation Room entrance door is shown propped open during a long take with staffers walking in and out at will while the guard just stands there.
I just want to end by saying how thankful I am that the designers did their homework. Even the artwork replicas are consistent with what you would find in the real White House. It's that kind of detail that makes this White House fan have fun watching.
Wild Wild West — 1999
(stars Will Smith and Kevin Kline)
There are just a couple of scenes set in the White House in Wild Wild West, but they are of note because it's one of the rare occasions when Hollywood has attempted to reproduce the White House of the 19th century. In this case, it is the White House of Ulysses Grant (Kevin Kline), where Jim West (Will Smith) goes to meet the president. He rides up to the open front gates of a wrought iron fence, where the fair representation of the White House is revealed behind. President Wilson's sheep graze on the front lawn a few decades early, and a stone path leads straight to the North Portico, where central steps, akin to the design Latrobe had in mind but never got to implement, show the way to the door. There is no statue of Jefferson, which resided on the real White House North Lawn throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
West enters unbidden to a very small Entrance Hall with a beautiful Victorian tile floor that is not at all a bad imitation of the real one from the period. The walls are light green, with olive green moldings and overstuffed chairs(!) A pair of gaslight torchiers flank the door, and a pretty good Victorian chandelier hangs overhead. Rather than the Walters paneled screen that should have separated the Entrance Hall from the Cross Hall, there is a wall whose door leads directly to the Blue Room, which is here used as an oval office in the lowercase sense.
It is a very small office—so small that it's virtually circular rather than oval—and papered in sheep-strewn landscapes akin to those the Kennedys would install in the Diplomatic Reception Room nearly a century later. The paint is the same olive green as on the moldings in the Entrance Hall. Among the Victorian furniture in the president's office is a steer horn chair similar to the one first ladies decorated around for awhile before quietly misplacing it. But there is nothing of the geometric wall designs hailed as "pure Greek" at the time, but there is the fine detail of the unfinished Washington Monument outside the south window. However, there is also a hedge outside that window, which doesn't make sense, since the south side of the house should have a porch over the exposed ground floor, so hedge at that height would require a huge big flower box.
Strangely, the president passes through a good hidden door in the east wall of his office into an enormous smoke-filled staff room, with long parallel tressel tables, an iron-railinged mezzanine, book-lined walls, and a very large map of the United States at the end, bigger even than the one in the Cabinet Room in the late 19th century. Here he explains the mission he wants West and Artemus Gordon (also Kevin Kline) to undertake.
Wilson — 1944
(stars Alexander Knox and Geraldine Fitzgerald)
Wilson is a dramatization of the life of President Woodrow Wilson, with exceptional production values featuring many carefully crafted White House interiors. Although not historically accurate and perhaps a bit too overblown by contemporary values, the film received 10 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Among the five Oscars the picture did win was for the superb art direction of Wiard Ihnen and the set decoration by Thomas Little. Matte paintings help to vividly depict the White House of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The private quarters were carefully researched and painstakingly built from exact measurements and photographs. The interior shots begin on Inauguration Day, when the Wilson Family is greeted in the Entrance Hall (beautifully done) and ushered to their quarters by Ike Hoover, who directs them to the elevator. The view of the Cross Hall and a distance glimpse into the East Room seem very well done. There is a brief sequence where the Wilson girls explore their rooms (not in any possible actual second floor sequence). The Lincoln bed is shown in what must be today’s Lincoln Bedroom, as Mrs. Wilson reads a plaque declaring this to be the room where Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, the Lincoln bed was in the President’s Bedroom (today's Living Room) at this time.
There are several shots of the West Sitting Hall, with the fan light window and the other doors to the various rooms precisely shown. The Oval Room features greenish walls and green and white printed curtains. The First Lady’s Bedroom (today's Master Bedroom), however, shows a large four-poster canopy bed for the dying Ellen Wilson, when in fact, twin beds were used here.
The old Oval Office is a fine but darkly-lit reproduction, with other West Wing rooms (Cabinet and halls) carefully depicted. Perhaps the single most magnificent interior is the Blue Room, with copies of the Marcotte chairs and sofa right down to the fabrics and the exact shade of blue for the walls. The urn motif appears on the chair backs, just as it did in 1902 and again in 1915 when the fabrics were renewed. There is, however, some license taken here in the greater number of chairs than actually provided for the room in 1902 by McKim. The window curtains, although correct, appear to be too flat and one-dimensional. There is an equally impressive East Room, although it is hung in the crimson of the FDR period rather than the gold hangings it had in the Wilson years. There also appears to be a suite of gilt Louis XVI furniture scattered about the room. But the paneling, the mantles and the chandeliers appear perfectly accurate. The painting of Washington, however, was at this time in the Red Room, not in the East Room, nor was there a portrait of Lincoln on the opposite wall; they are there for visual impact during the mythical confrontation between Wilson and the German Ambassador.
Wilson is purely and unabashedly American in all its World War II patriotism. For those seeking a historically accurate portrayal of the life of this president, you won’t find it here. But for avid White House enthusiasts, it’s a real treat to see these early 20th century interiors of the house so beautifully recreated.