FILM REVIEW – ELVIS & NIXON. With Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks. Written by Joey Sagal & Hanala Sagal & Cary Elwes. Directed by Liza Johnson. Rated R for some language. 86 minutes.
If there wasn’t an actual photograph, you might not believe it. In fact, in December 1970, Elvis Presley was welcomed into the Oval Office to meet President Richard Nixon and that famous picture of one of the most unlikeliest meetings in history has become one of the most requested photographs of all-time from the National Archives. Now, through the historical record and a good bit of dramatic license, ELVIS & NIXON gives us a glimpse of how that meeting came about and what might have transpired.
By 1970, Elvis might have been “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but he was well past his prime, and the notion that he might still be a conduit to America’s youth showed just how out of touch White House aides like Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) were. The true cluelessness, of course, was on the part of Elvis (Michael Shannon), who wanted the president to designate him a “special agent” so he could go “undercover” to investigate how drugs and subversion were permeating the music business.
He arrives in Washington, D. C. with trusted friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who’s a bit skeptical about the whole thing. When he’s rebuffed at the White House, he tries other means to get the special badge he wants. However, Krogh believes that a picture of Nixon (Kevin Spacey) with Elvis would be a tremendous publicity coup for the White House, and works to make it happen.
The meeting itself is a comedy of miscommunication, as Elvis does all the things he’s told not to do, and the socially awkward Nixon tries to run out the clock with small talk. Yet something interesting happens as the two stumble onto common ground and make a connection. Are they really hearing each other? It’s doubtful, but each gets something meaningful out of the experience–including an autograph for the President’s daughter Julie.
As Elvis, Shannon–who often plays uptight characters–gets to go in a different direction. His “late Elvis” is trying to find his place in a world very different from the one in which he came to fame, and seeks out Nixon not as a supplicant but as a peer. He’s respectful, at least as he comprehends it, but thinks that reaching out to the President of the United States is something in his purview. Spacey, who plays the devious Frank Underwood, the President on “House of Cards,” is a different sort of President as Nixon. He sketches in enough of Nixon’s mannerisms to seem real without turning into a caricature.Watching the two actors have their characters slowly come to terms with each other is one of the highlights of the movie.
If “Frost/Nixon” (2008) was about a dramatic encounter where the then former President was forced to confront his role in history, this is a small comic gem in which two twentieth-century icons get to confront each other and, possibly, learn something about themselves.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.