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The Night Washington Goes Wild: Inside the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Bad jokes, worse food, drunk celebrities and politicians: This annual alcohol-soaked bash is a delirious social merry-go-round…unless you’re seated in social Siberia.

04.09.15 9:15 AM ET

Like the self-celebratory black-tie banquet it spotlights, Patrick Gavin’s film about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is too damned long.

Clocking in at one hour and 15 minutes (a pace more glacial than a stopwatch would suggest), Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week certainly captures the inevitable tedium of the affair—an annual rite of spring for journalists, politicians, lobbyists, celebrities, and other hangers-on intent on flaunting their influence and relevance.

But it doesn’t provide the free drinks required to deaden the pain. 

And call this a quibble if you like, but the documentary—which is available for purchase online and receives its Washington premiere on Thursday—disappoints on its promise of exposing “Washington Wildest Week.” 

It’s too much to expect a drug-fueled orgy, but, alas, Nerd Prom doesn’t even deliver a wardrobe malfunction.

Instead, the film flits from one bullet point to the next without any particular narrative drive or discernible theme other than that the dinner, comprising the president of the United States and 3,000 ladies and gentlemen jam-packed into the basement ballroom of the Washington Hilton, is, as Gavin narrates in a near-constant voiceover, “the most important event every year in Washington, D.C., arguably the most powerful city in the entire world!”

Gavin, a former member of the party-coverage team for Politico, the Beltway trade publication, dutifully solicits party planners, reporters and various capital denizens for their deep thoughts on the event (“Big!” is their most frequent insight); shows himself begging fruitlessly for access to various media receptions such as the New Yorker’s and Vanity Fair’s, and holding up a hand-lettered sign behind a tuxedoed and unsuspecting Henry Kissinger (“It’s true he’s really hot,” it says); and records his shamelessly silly questions to celebs like Patrick Stewart (“Who’s your favorite White House correspondent?”; Captain Picard, with barely concealed sarcasm, replies: “All of them.”)

The film’s gimlet-eyed observations tend to be of the “no-shit-Sherlock” variety: The dinner has nothing to do with the important business of being a White House correspondent; it does no favors for the tattered image of our public servants or the media elite who are supposed to hold them accountable; it’s a staging ground for self-promotion and corporate advertising; Hollywood and Washington appear to be fascinated with each other; the comedians hired to follow the president to the podium are at a severe disadvantage; the crowd pays zero attention to the presentation of journalism scholarships and other awards; paparazzi earn more money from red-carpet photos of movie stars than of politicians and reporters; and so on and so forth.

The comments of Washington society columnists Kevin Chafee and Carol Joynt, who appear briefly in Nerd Prom, are rare in that they are actually amusing.

Here’s Joynt on the presence of famous actors and other celebs: “They come because they’re told to come—or paid. They get here and they’re kind of scratching their heads as to why they’re here, and they’re shaking media people off their limbs… The celebrity part is going to diminish by virtue of the celebrities losing interest.”

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And Chafee: “It’s thousands of people and very bad food crushed together in a room that, even though it’s big, is too small. It’s something I prefer to watch on television, quite frankly.”

Those caveats aside, this dinner—which, as Nerd Prom fails to mention, is one of four equally ostentatious seasonal extravaganzas, including the Alfalfa Club dinner, the Gridiron dinner and the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner—certainly has its uses.

For a Washington-based journalist, it’s an uncommon opportunity to buttonhole newsmakers, some of them quite drunk, and hear what they really think about policy and politics without the filter of spin doctors and handlers.

That remains the case, even as it has metastasized from the sedate and businesslike affair of the 1920s to today’s cheeseball clusterfuck graced by the likes of invitees Ozzy Osbourne and Kim Kardashian (Thank you, Greta Van Susteren!)

And, very occasionally, there is excellent comedy, such as when Stephen Colbert skewered George W. Bush in 2006.

And when Barack Obama witheringly scythed Donald Trump down to size in 2011.

The dinner and its satellite parties are surely a rich subject for a documentary, especially one focused on social anthropology. It’s surprising that, until now, nobody has tried.

Full disclosure: Having gone to a score of these events as a Washington Post reporter in the 1980s and 1990s—with plans to attend this year’s dinner, along with a raft of collateral cocktail parties, the weekend of April 25—I have witnessed and participated in any number of activities of which I’m not especially proud, starting with the cutthroat competition between news organizations to wrangle government officials and Hollywood types for their tables, which, depending on their proximity to the dais where the president and first lady sit, are considered either prestigious or humiliating.

The latter category includes place settings in Siberia—the Hilton ballroom’s upper tier by the rear exits.

What’s more, I have rudely talked over the awards presentation and ignored my fellow diners to squeeze through the cramped tables and chairs and bother unprotected newsmakers and celebrities, impeding the progress of annoyed waiters bearing platters of overcooked filet mignon; have tried to bluff my way into A-list before- and after parties to which I wasn’t invited; have laughed more heartily than necessary or reasonable at the president’s standup routine; and have otherwise abased myself before the altar of momentary status and vicarious fame (George Clooney once fixed my upside-down clip-on bowtie!)

I assume Nerd Prom’s Gavin has committed his share of similar sins. So it’s difficult to believe that he’s completely sincere when, at the end of his movie, he seems to method-act his way into an impassioned peroration about how the White House Correspondents Dinner—now nearly a century-old tradition—is betraying the sacred values of public service and civic-mindedness that Washington is supposed to uphold.

“I don’t know…It just seems there’s something very wrong with that,” a world-weary Gavin, behind the wheel of his SUV, says straight to camera as he drives off into the night. “If Washington, of all places, will not or cannot stand up for the rights of the public, stand up for journalism…if Washington doesn’t, I mean, just think about it—who will?”

Dude. It’s a dinner.

And yet, first-time filmmaker Gavin deserves respect for his ambition, industry and moxie—he quit his job for this project—in raising the money and shedding the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to complete a feature-length movie. That alone is an achievement.