ELVIS & NIXON
Director: Liza Johnson
Cast: Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Kevin Spacey, Colin Hanks, Johnny Knoxville, Evan Peters
MPAA Rating: (for some language)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 4/22/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 22, 2016
Richard Nixon wanted to be respected as a man who overcame a myriad of challenges to reach the highest office in the land, but he was destined to be despised. Elvis Presley was destined to be admired for his music, but he wanted to be loved as the man behind the flashy outfits. It's little wonder that the two men would get along in their brief meeting at the Oval Office, an event dramatized in Elvis & Nixon, but maybe they would only be able to get along during a brief get-together. The divide between them was so vast that the curious meeting itself has become the stuff of legend. The photo of the two men together is the most requested image from the White House archives.
About what would these two men be able to talk? Upon what would they agree and disagree? How much lying on the part of both men would need to happen in order for things to be civil? Part of mystique surrounding the event is that it was not recorded. Nixon, who notoriously recorded everything that happened in the Oval Office for over two years, hadn't installed the infamous recording system yet.
Was it just a coincidence that the first documented recording of a conversation in Nixon's Oval Office took place less than two months after the 37th President of the United States' meeting with the one and only King of Rock and Roll? It probably was, but it's amusing to think that Elvis may have indirectly led to some of Nixon's problems a few years later. Nixon missed a chance to have the King on the record with him. He wasn't going to let another opportunity like that pass him by again.
The film plays such coincidences and the entire oddity of the situation for laughs, which might be the correct approach on a superficial level. The screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes mostly focuses on Elvis. Nixon is a footnote—a MacGuffin of sorts—for the other man, who has decided that the state of the United States in December of 1970 has become perilous. There are protests. There are drugs. There are hippies. He has had enough of the images he sees on the collection of televisions in his den at Graceland. That's where we get another image of legend, as Elvis pulls out one of his many handguns and shoots a TV.
The plan is for Elvis to meet with Nixon and obtain the dubious title of "federal agent-at-large." He wants to help put a stop to the drug epidemic and add another badge to his growing collection.
Elvis is played by Michael Shannon. The actor looks nothing like and only vaguely sounds a bit like the King, but once the initial shock of the casting wears off, we notice how appropriate a choice the actor is for the role. There's a level of detachment to everyone and everything around him. He has lived for so long on his own that it's only right. At the time, he was married to an unseen Priscilla, but there's a reason she's absent from the film, except in brief mentions that Elvis is trying to distance himself from her because she disapproves of his spending habits.
Shannon also conveys the confident swagger (He walks into a Washington, D.C., donut shop like he owns the place and kind of smirks when someone mocks him after he orders an "original," because that's the furthest he is to the clientele of the shop), the eccentric personality (There are too many instances here to note just one), and, more importantly, the deep well of pain that the entirety of the public Elvis persona seems to be concealing. Director Liza Johnson may undoubtedly see this as a comedy about two, big personalities and the clash between them. The film's most effective moments, though, come when the veil of Elvis, the performer, is shed for Elvis, the kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, and Memphis who grew up keenly aware of the pain of other people and now wishes someone would recognize it in him. He brings two boyhood friends with him to D.C.: Jerry (Alex Pettyfer), who wants to make it on his own without any help from his world-famous buddy, and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), who is more than happy to ride the tails of his friend's cape.
Nixon is played by Kevin Spacey, who ends up looking and sounding the role (eventually) but has a less heavy burden to bear. This isn't the reimagined Nixon as a tragic figure. He's the straight man to Elvis' peculiar style. Spacey also plays the President as something of a leech.
Nixon may not see the political and personal benefits of meeting Elvis that Egil "Bud" Krogh (an amusingly exasperated Colin Hanks), the administration's liaison to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, sees. Everything changes, though, once the King walks into the Oval Office and starts talking. It helps that Elvis compliments the insecure President on his looks. From there, a five-minute meeting becomes a lengthier tęte-ŕ-tęte about the state of the nation (They seem politically unified, although a throwaway line to one of his confidants about the Beatles suggests that Elvis is putting on a little charade), the music scene, and Elvis' questionable plan to go undercover for drug busts.
The film accomplishes its fundamental goal: It's a funny portrayal of a weird moment in history. Elvis & Nixon goes deeper than that surface level, though, in its and Shannon's depiction of Elvis as a wounded man who is always putting on a show. The Oval Office is just his most prestigious stage.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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