Film Review: Elvis & Nixon

Lightly amusing movie recreation of the celebrated meeting of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.
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It sounds like a good idea: a movie about the surreal meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, two of the most infamous—and surreal—characters of the 20th century. However, if it weren’t for the go-for-broke performances by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in the title roles, this well-intended movie would simply be a cinematic curiosity. Amusing, yes. But—“say what?”

Elvis & Nixon takes place at the end of 1970, when Elvis (Michael Shannon) is between gigs and getting depressed because he’s been overdosing on negative TV news—the war in Vietnam and accompanying protests, the growing drug use among the young, etc. After shooting out an entire bank of TV sets (using one of his gold-plated pistols), Elvis has an epiphany: He—and only he—can save America from self-destruction. As The King, of course, he’s accustomed to getting anything he wants, and what he wants now is to go to Washington and personally ask President Nixon to make him an undercover “Federal Agent at Large” with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Oh, and he wants a badge, too. The badge is important.

Elvis knows he needs help to pull off the hush-hush trip to D.C., so he calls on a trusted friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and one of his regular goons, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), to accompany him. And a good thing, too, for Schilling (in this version, anyway) knows exactly how to make Elvis’ bizarre demands magically come true—with or without the cooperation of the Secret Service.

So on the morning of December 21, the boys from Nashville show up unannounced at the White House as President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) sits hunched over his desk in the Oval Office, contemplating his afternoon “nap time.” A couple of excitable presidential aides, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), suddenly burst in to tell him that The King himself is on the lawn requesting a private meeting with the President. The foul-mouthed Nixon dismisses the idea out of hand, but Krogh and Chapin convince him the visit would be “important for the youth vote.” He finally agrees to meet Elvis—but only for five minutes, and only if he gets an autograph for his daughter. Meanwhile, Krogh and Chapin call in a photographer to document this historic occasion—and that photo, of Elvis and the President shaking hands, allegedly remains the most requested item from the National Archives.

Until the moment they actually meet, it’s often hard to tell if Elvis and Nixon are supposed to be figures of comedy or tragedy. Shannon’s performance is so cool it can turn icy; on occasion, his jaw actually seems frozen shut. However, the actor is quite eloquent and moving in an introspective riff on the price of fame: Looking into the mirror, his Elvis laments that, as the world’s biggest megastar, he has become a “thing,” and “no one ever sees the real me.” That Elvis provokes empathy, even real tears. But the next thing you know, The King is back, grandly dismissing the minions with a regal wave.

The film’s character sketch of Richard Nixon is not as complete, but Spacey does have a few splendid moments of insight into what made Tricky Dick tick. He’s hilarious, for instance, when Nixon finally falls under Elvis’ spell, or when he fantasizes about a karate match with Presley. “Can I take him?” he innocently asks his aides.

In a diverting subplot, those two aides, Krogh and Chapin, interact with Presley’s boys, Shilling and Sonny, in a series of near-slapstick vignettes involving clandestine meetings in an underground garage (a prequel to Watergate?) and some improvised efforts to get Elvis’ stash of concealed weapons—along with the pistol and silver bullets meant as a gift for the President—past the Secret Service.

In retrospect, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon were undoubtedly two of the freakiest real-life characters of the twentieth century. But the fact is, our twenty-first century society has moved into even freakier territory, with self-deluded egotists—Donald Trump and Kanye West, for instance—dominating both politics and mass entertainment. In this regard, unfortunately, Elvis & Nixon has lost some of its power to fascinate and amuse. Maybe it’s past its sell-by date—which is all a little sad, when you think about it.