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Elvis & Nixon (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

Elvis & Nixon

Elvis & Nixon

ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson, Dylan Penn, Ritchie Montgomery, Danny McCarthy, Ian Hoch and Jeff Caperton.

Screenplay by Joey Sagal & Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes.

Directed by Liza Johnson.

Distributed by Bleecker Street.  86 minutes.  Rated R.

The most requested photograph in the National Archives turns out to be one of the most surreal meetings of all time – the 1970 White House visit of Elvis Presley to see President Richard Nixon.

Just the idea that this meeting ever occurred is crazy in so many ways, more than anything because these two men were so completely polar opposites.  Elvis Presley was effortlessly cool.  President Nixon was awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin.  Presley felt supremely confident in his every thought and act, but honestly at this point in his career had been surrounded by sycophants for so long that he didn’t realize how truly odd, perhaps even unhinged, he was.  Presley was the epitome of everything that Nixon would have seemed to hate, a rock & roll, long-haired degenerate who caused women to act crazy.  Nixon couldn’t make a woman act crazy if he tried, and he was the President of the United States, dammit!

It almost seems like an “odd couple” type of movie.

However, it really happened.  And that picture is the only proof that we really have.  The meeting occurred about a year before Nixon had his own Oval Office bugged – a paranoia that helped lead to his downfall – but sadly that means that we do not have a transcript of what happened in that very, very odd summit meeting.

Thus the idea of Elvis breaking bread with President Nixon has only grown in our national imagination, simply because we will never ever know exactly what happened.  It has become the stuff of urban legends.  The idea of the story has tickled the world for years.  Now it has become a smart and funny screenplay by Joey Sagal & Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes (yes, the actor who was Prince Westley in The Princess Bride).

Sure, we know some of the particulars of the meeting.  Apparently Elvis got it into his head that he would like to be a special undercover agent for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency).  So he walked up to the gate of the White House and asked to have a letter hand delivered to the President.  (Could you imagine this happening today?)

Elvis claimed that because he was hanging with the kids, it would be the perfect cover.  Perhaps he just wanted the badge, who knows?  Interestingly, the movie pretty much skirts Elvis’ own substance abuse problem, he would die of an overdose of prescription meds seven years later.  However, Nixon’s men know a good photo op when they saw one, so they talked a reluctant President into taking the meeting.

And that’s pretty much it.  The rest of Elvis & Nixon revolves around that uncomfortable and yet oddly exhilarating meeting by two of the most powerful and most influential men of their time – the President meets the King.  It’s not all conjecture, one of Elvis’ best friends who was there was involved in the creation of the movie and gave background, but there is enough speculation and just plain made-up stuff to keep it fascinating.  Even if Elvis didn’t really show Nixon his karate moves, we’d love to think it could have happened.

It’s not simple to take two of the most filmed men in American history and find actors who can perform the roles without being a simple imitation, but the filmmakers have found the perfect vessels in Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.  Spacey’s take on Nixon is subtle, you pick up the accent naturally here and there and he captures the former President’s insecurity and clumsiness.

Shannon has the flashier role, but happily he doesn’t go all out Elvis impersonator.  In fact, in one surprisingly subtle scene, Elvis runs across a professional tribute performer in an airport and the guy, assuming he’s another mimic, chides him for not being flashy enough.  And yet, not for a second do you doubt that Shannon (who really looks little like the King, either) is not the real deal.

In the long run, it’s a charming if inessential story.  However, it is told so lovingly that it would be a shame to miss it.  Who knows if Elvis & Nixon is really what happened when those two pop culture icons crossed paths?  But if it is not, it really should be.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: April 22, 2016.

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