of Americans grew up with the reassuring presences of Elvis Presley and Richard
Nixon. You can’t get much more iconic than blue suede shoes, the swiveling hips
not on The Ed Sullivan Show, Checkers
the Dog, and the Pumpkin Papers. It turns out the two men had more in common
than the general public generally assumed. Liza Johnson gives the famous late
December 1970 summit meeting a thinly fictionalized treatment in Elvis & Nixon (trailer here), which is now playing in New
York after screening as the centerpiece of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
1970, Presley was already a regular fixture in Vegas, but it would be eighteen
months before he cut his milestone cover of “Always On My Mind.” The
Gospel-singing man from Memphis has had enough of the hippies, New Left
agitators, and Black Panthers he sees on television. After shooting out the TV
(because he’s Elvis), he decides to fly to DC in order to meet with Pres.
Nixon. The King has a half-baked notion of becoming a “Federal Agent At-Large,”
not that such a thing exists.
fulfill his mission, Presley slips out from under the Colonel’s thumb, calling
on his old friend and former Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling to coordinate
the logistics. Of course, even in 1970, nobody could just walk into the Oval
Office, but Elvis Presley could get closer than most. He finds a key ally in
Egil Krogh, the White House policy specialist on narcotics, who not so
realistically envisions the King serving as a powerful spokesman for the
administration’s anti-drug campaign.
Elvis & Nixon is a surprisingly gentle and
nostalgic film that truly forgives the foibles of its subjects. Johnson and the
trio of screenwriters, Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and actor Cary Elwes, zero in
on the common ground shared by the two Horatio Alger figures. Frankly, it is
downright shocking (in a good way), how steadfastly the film resists taking pot
shots at the Nixon administration figures.
not an obvious candidate, Michael Shannon turns out to be an inspired choice
for Presley. Granted, he hardly has that resonate baritone voice, but he can do
Presley’s aura and bearing without resorting to shtick. He powerfully conveys
both the pride and regrets of the man they still call “King.” As an added
bonus, he shares some quietly effective scenes with Alex Pettyfer’s Schilling. On
the other hand, it is harder for Kevin Spacey to avoid sliding into
impersonation terrain as our beloved and reviled 37th President. At
least his Nixonisms never feel vindictive or cheap.
Watching the eccentrically simpatico chemistry shared by Shannon and
Spacey will make viewers regret the famous 1970 meeting was a one-off. You can
almost see Presley and Nixon being the sort of friends they really needed,
because unlike Bebe Rebozo and the Memphis Mafia, each was completely separate from
the other’s world. Regardless, it is strangely entertaining to watch the two
legends eat M&Ms and drink Dr. Pepper together. Recommended rather
affectionately, Elvis & Nixon is now
playing in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Bow Tie Chelsea, closely
following its centerpiece screenings at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
Labels: Elvis Presley, Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Richard Nixon, Tribeca '16