Notice the disclaimer at the start of the film Georgetown: “This story does not, in any way, claim to be the truth. Nonetheless it is inspired by real events.”
It’s devious, like those TV newsreaders parleying the cliché of “false claim” to discourage their audience from any speculation about voter integrity. Georgetown’s murder-mystery plot speculates about moral integrity where we find the seat of government. It’s both a sex farce and a horror film, suggesting more about politics and corrupt journalism than you’ll ever learn from CNN, Fox, or MSNBC (recently dubbed MSDNC). The skullduggery revealed in Georgetown, titled after the Washington, D.C., neighborhood, makes it the Swamp movie of the year.
How European self-starter Ulrich Mott (played by Christoph Waltz) climbs the Beltway power ladder by marrying widowed journalist Elsa Breht (Vanessa Redgrave) is an impudent replay of the real-life story of German émigré Albrecht Muth, who is serving a 50-year prison sentence for killing his wife, 91-year-old D.C. socialite-journalist Viola Drath, in 2011.
As directed by Waltz (the Austrian actor whom Quentin Tarantino introduced to American filmgoers in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained as a time-traveling, cross-genre changeling), Georgetown adopts moral conceits familiar from Waltz’s theatrical background: Ulrich Mott could be a character in a play by Arthur Schnitzler (La Ronde) or Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Visit), dramatists concerned with personal and political power. Georgetown similarly observes the craven dishonesty behind bureaucratic politics that our contemporary media ignore.
It’s a wonder that Waltz got away with such risky satire. His producer, Brett Ratner, must be working off the onus of his own sexual-impropriety charges since being canceled by #MeToo culture. This shrewd comedy about white-collar treachery could only be more keen-eyed if James Toback had directed it with his bold, ribald insight that goes deeper than journalistic folly — and minus the timidity of Paul Schrader’s The Walker, a glum D.C. sex farce about the shadow world of Washington escorts.
Waltz and Ratner collaborated with playwright David Auburn (Proof) to bring feminine empathy to its masculine character study. Waltz plays Mott as a scheming, skeevy villain, but opposite him, Vanessa Redgrave gets her fullest film role in years. Instead of dramatizing toxic masculinity, Georgetown reveals political toxicity. It peeks inside D.C.’s hidden business — the dinner parties, glad-handing, and comfortable affluence. Here are the private delusions and personal vendettas that mean so much to the professional lives of journos and politicos. It’s the same territory that Steven Spielberg casually accepted and valorized in his egregious Katherine Graham–Ben Bradlee tribute The Post.
Waltz delivers a dazzling, memorable con: “Diplomatic history and practice are my passion. Kissinger, Bismarck, Tallyrand — what a genius! Have you read him, Tallyrand?” But then, Redgrave’s avid bemusement during her first meeting with Ulrich says as much. This old lady, “the ascendant queen of Georgetown society” courted by a go-getter gigolo, enlightens us past our naïveté. Waltz’s casting of D.C. establishment types (white, old; young, eager; all arrogant) gives a perfect picture of a separate America with snobby, monarchist class notions. The film’s farce includes a news clip flashback to George W. Bush on Iraq (“Responsibility rests with me”) that’s almost refreshing; it brings back Hollywood’s cynicism, from the time when it hated 43 before he sided with 44 against 45. But the overall farce structure is built on insider details: references to Sally Quinn and Elsa’s Harvard-professor daughter (Annette Bening) humble-bragging, “I teach constitutional law, so please just remove the layer of condescension from your voice!” By now, we should not be surprised by elites who use the Constitution to promote personal grievances. Based on a New York Times article, “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” by Franklin Foer, the film tickles our skepticism.
Hollywood can no longer be trusted politically, yet the lead actors make Georgetown’s social and temperamental landscape vivid. Ulrich’s various costumes — from a foreign dignitary’s uniform to an eye patch and a beret worn when he cruises the D.C. Basin — make an indelible character sketch, like Elsa’s tweed Chanel suit, a minimal but telling wardrobe. She is glimpsed at a typewriter, but we wonder: Other than provide Ulrich access to D.C.’s most eminent operators, what does this venerable “journalist” do?
The issue of irresponsible media becomes equal to irresponsible government and personal responsibility. Georgetown is the rare modern movie to look at people who are morally blind yet greedy for authority and status. Ulrich’s crime is part of this shameless culture: Mika Brzezinski’s talk at the National Press Club; appointments at the office of George Soros (described as a “billionaire political activist and philanthropist”); reservations at La Chaumière; dining with former defense secretary Robert McNamara — all faked, but that in itself is preferable to the deceptions in Borat.
Waltz and Auburn cleverly divided their true-crime, D.C. Swamp bio-farce into six sections: The Intern, The Butler, The Diplomat, The Incident, The Embed, The Truth. They chart the levels of government, the means to power, that most Americans know nothing about. Waltz’s cool, detached film style made me recall the aerial view of Rhode Island mansions in the Claus von Bülow murder-mystery satire Reversal of Fortune. (“Is that America!” I gasped.) And Waltz/Mott’s conniving, obsequious, media-ready grin — before he commits murder — confirms the joke that’s being played on us.