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FILM REVIEW: "Elvis & Nixon"

Bleecker Street / Amazon
Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon in 2016's "Elvis & Nixon."
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FILM REVIEW: Elvis & Nixon (Bleecker Street / Amazon) 2016

It says a lot about the affect that both Elvis Presley and Pres. Richard M. Nixon have had on the American psyche to learn that the most requested photo from the U.S. National Archives is the Dec. 21, 1970 photo of Nixon shaking The King’s hand in the Oval Office.

It also says that Americans love celebrity and power. Sure, requesting iconic photos from the Great Depression or World War II (think the flag raising at Iwo Jima, for instance), or daguerrotypes of Abraham Lincoln. But no. The seemingly preposterous meeting of the paranoid leader of the “free world” and the aging, gunslinging rock star is simply too amazing. Too American.

The actual Dec. 21, 1970 meeting between Pres. Nixon and Elvis Presley. (US National Archives)

So, it is only natural that a film be made about the circumstances that led to this historical meeting of the minds (well, that film was already made in 1997 – the campy Elvis Meets Nixon) a few days before Christmas, while outside the White House anti-war protester demand an end to the war in Vietnam and the long-haired, hippie counterculture demands peace and justice from a president who, according to the late Hunter S. Thompson, no fan of Nixon, was a “political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy.

But we don’t see that Nixon so much, in this film co-written by Cary Elwes, best known as “Westley” in The Princess Bride, and directed by Liza Johnson (Hateship, Loveship)

We do see Kevin Spacey doing a relatively decent job getting Tricky Dick’s mannerisms down correctly and we learn that Michael Shannon (a prolific actor who played the loathsome Kim Fowley in 2010’s The Runaways and who also appeared in Liza Johnson’s 2011 film Return) can pull off a fairly decent Elvis, although in a scene where Elvis runs into two “Elvis impersonators” in the airport, you find yourself wanting to follow those guys a’la 3000 Miles to Graceland, or at least Bubba Ho-Tep, with Bruce Campbell.

It’s not clear if the Presley family was on board with this project. We don’t get any Elvis songs, but we get some classics from the era – “Hold On, I’m Comin’” by Sam & Dave and “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears, among others. 

So, why did Elvis want to meet Nixon to begin with? It was those damn, long-haired weirdoes, man! Shannon’s somewhat taciturn Elvis is shown in the Graceland TV room (showing Dr. Strangelove on one of the three TV’s, of course) and he is disgusted with the direction of the country, that America is at a “crossroads.”

Naturally, Elvis wants to do his part for his troubled nation, and after shooting his TV, which he was prone to do, he decides Uncle Sam needs to make him a federal “agent-at-large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, even though Nixon, when he finally learns of it (via a letter Elvis wrote and Elvis’s trip to D.C. under the “top secret” pseudonym “Jon Burrows”), isn’t sure such a position even exists.

But then that’s the humor. What the King wants, the King gets, even if he has to lie a little about his hatred of the Beatles to get in Nixon’s good graces and help remove some of the walls the president has built around himself.

Elvis sound positively Bircher-esque as he finally gets his meeting with Nixon, talking of communist conspiracies and wanting to infiltrate Black Power groups, hippie communes and fans of the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones.

In Elvis’s letter to Nixon, he writes “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing.” It’s all absolutely fascinating and bizarre.

It’s when you hear Elvis talking this way that you realize at heart he was a deeply conservative Southerner who was a bit fearful of the rapidly changing culture – a culture he ironically helped to bring about in the mid-1950’s.

And another scene where Elvis wanders into a doughnut shop in a predominantly African-American neighborhood is also awkward but interesting. Yes, Elvis loved junk food, snacking on M&M’s and drinking Nixon’s Dr Pepper, even though his aides, Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Chapin (Evan Peters) warn him not to touch the president’s snacks. Elvis just can’t help himself. And there’s comedic moments there, for sure.

Elvis & Nixon works pretty well, even though Spacey’s Nixon doesn’t get as much face time as I would have preferred, because, well, Spacey is such an amazing actor.

A side story involving friends Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), particularly Schilling’s decision about whether to continue working with old friend Elvis, just as he’s preparing to propose marriage to his girlfriend Charlotte (Sky Ferreira), is largely unnecessary. That time could have been used to focus more on the key subjects at hand – Elvis and Nixon.

I’ll admit not being totally sold on Shannon’s Elvis. He’s a great character actor, with a  unique face, but I wonder if someone else might have been better. Or maybe I’m just biased, wanting a more campy Elvis. This, after all, is the “true” story of what went down in the Oval Office that day nearly 46 years ago. 

I can live with that.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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