For more on the behind-the-scenes action at the “Nerd Prom” premiere and Christopher’s own experiences with the dinner, check out Monday’s Members Only column.
This week saw the release of the film Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week, and as a White House reporter and one of the film’s stars, I attended Thursday night’s premiere with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. At last year’s dinner, I had agreed with the film’s director, former Politico reporter Patrick Gavin, to appear in the film in a capacity that I won’t spoil for you (since I know you’re already ordering your copy right now), but was prepared for a film that I might not enjoy, and might not even make it into.
Coming from the villager-minded Politico, I expected the same haughty rant about the dinner that someone makes every year (either because they couldn’t get in or they’ve already had their fun, Tom Brokaw), delivered by a novice filmmaker with the cinematic eye of a CNN iReporter. Color me pleasantly surprised on both counts.
Gavin’s film clocks in at a lean eighty minutes, and from a production standpoint, bears all the hallmarks of an old pro. The film starts off right with a bluegrass-inflected opening credits theme song by Lissie Rosemont’s Junior League Band that lived up to Gavin’s pre-screening praise, and goes on to show that a lean film doesn’t have to be a cheap-looking film. Gavin keeps things moving with a mixture of techniques that engage, but never descend into gimmickry.
For example, the Annie Leibovitz-style black-and-white interviews with journalists like April Ryan could have seemed like a tired documentary trope, but Gavin uses them to great effect to contrast their considered opinions with the candy-colored glitz of the film’s titular subject. He also resists the temptation to milk some of the film’s most winning moments, like the sequence in which he quizzes celebrities on their favorite White House correspondents. The film’s breakout stars, like US News and World Report‘s Nikki Schwab (who holds forth on the dinner while getting her hair and makeup done) and the candidly sniping staff at Capitol File, are expertly woven into the narrative, rather than expended in bursts.
As for the subject matter, Nerd Prom examines the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner from a variety of angles, critiquing the dinner’s ascent to Washington’s Most Important Event, the dinner’s ostensible mission as a charitable event, and yes, touching on the tired notion that it symbolizes a “coziness” between reporters and their subjects. What’s fresh and gratifying about it, though, is the dominant theme that emerges throughout the film, that the thing it is least about is the humble White House correspondent.
Patrick Gavin has described the film as a “love letter” to the reporters on this tough, prestigious beat, and in the modern media landscape, he’s swimming against a tide of brain-dead groupthink that doesn’t see the value in what we do. Gavin’s film revels in it, and wants us to be able to do it better. Coated in the sweet sugar of celebrity-shaming exposé, Nerd Prom is, at its heart, a film about journalism, and a damn good one.
One of the highlights of Thursday night’s premiere (really, the highlight) was getting to see my former colleague Ann Compton for the first time since she retired. A towering figure in our profession, Ann is barely known to anyone outside it, and one of the things I’ve always appreciated about the dinner’s celeb-fueled popularity is that it got people to look at someone like Ann, even if they didn’t know what they were seeing.
The premiere was also attended by a roster of people whoh appeared in the film, including many correspondents, and several current and former WHCA officers. While former WHCA President Steve Thomma bristled at what he saw as a key omission during the post-screening Q&A session, the reporters I spoke to were uniform in their overall praise for the movie. Despite some serious criticisms of the association, current WHCA President Christi Parsons told me “I appreciate the attention to the dinner, especially from a journalist like Patrick,” adding “He is raising the right questions, and I completely agree with his conclusion — the spotlight that weekend should be on the work we do at the White House and on the fight, on behalf of the press and the public, for openness and transparency.”
True to form, I also managed to get in a question during Gavin’s post-screening panel, led by liberal radio icon Bill Press. Since most of the questions had been about the dinner or the WHCA, I decided to ask Gavin a question about the film-making process:
After the screening, Gavin and many of our fellow attendees (myself and my wing-woman Sally Albright included) retired to Chef Geoff’s restaurant for an impromptu afterparty (much more on that in Monday’s Members Only column), and as Gavin and I were discussing the film with a State Department official who had been at the premiere, something dawned on me.
One if the most surprising things about Nerd Prom was the fact that Gavin couldn’t get into any of the parties, almost all of which are held by news organizations and/or media outlets whose value of transparency apparently only extends to their parties’ edge. I explained to them that in my years on the beat, I’ve never had a problem getting into any party I wanted to attend, and filmed at all of them.
The State Department official’s first reaction was that it was because I’m a White House reporter, but even in Gavin’s film, many reporters said they couldn’t get into parties, and one of the WHCA scholarship winners was even denied entry. One of the great gets in Nerd Prom was access to the meeting at which decisions are made about invitations to the Capitol File party (which I have attended), and it’s a tough ticket. The reason I could get in is that I wasn’t shooting a documentary, I was working for an influential media reporting site. If they think you’re a public relations asset, then you’re in.
Despite all the obstacles (Gavin did manage to get into the 2.0 New Media party), Nerd Prom never suffers from a lack of access, thanks to Gavin’s determination and insight. Before I saw the film, I was also concerned that I might have ended up on the cutting-room floor, or worse, might have wished I’d ended up there. My contribution could easily have been left out, or played as a cheap aside, but instead, became the fulcrum for one of the film’s most important themes.
Gavin was repeatedly asked what he would do to change the dinner, and one of his suggestions (made in the film as well) is to get rid of the red carpet. If I had my way, the red carpet would remain, but it would be people like Ann Compton strutting down it, reminding the world why we’re all supposed to be there.