For better or worse, cultures choose what images they feel represent them. And for apparently countless Americans, that image is of the time Elvis Presley met President Richard Nixon. If you don’t believe me, just ask the National Archives.
Indeed, the most requested photograph from the annals of our history is neither of a man on the moon or a or a sailor and nurse in Times Square on V.J. Day. Rather, we pay homage to the King of Rock ‘n Roll meeting the King of the Southern Strategy, a sort of zenith for the heights of paranoid white culture and a Rorschach Test for any observer: just who is the stranger cat?
That is certainly the elephant in the oval room for Elvis & Nixon, a cheeky and slight, if always affable, recreation of this bizarre trip into Americana’s Twilight Zone. Because it obviously could not have been reality when Elvis showed up on the morning of Dec. 20, 1970 at the White House’s North West gate with a letter to hand deliver to the president, right? (It was scribbled on an American Airlines stationery that Presley hastily gathered his thoughts upon during the flight over to D.C.) Yet that is exactly what happened when the proprietor of Graceland got it into his head that America has a serious drug problem (he should know from all the uppers and downers he was on), and he wanted to do something about the “hippie elements” and Black Panthers that were leading the kids astray.
With no chance in hell of taking this any more seriously than Tricky Dick himself, who first reacts at the prospect with utter disdain, director Liza Johnson assembles what is essentially a comedy of manners. Very, very odd manners. Embodying those many tics are Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. Neither man looks particularly like their historic counterpart, but with Shannon piled under all the hairspray, sunglasses, and skin-tight velvet of the famed musician, you cannot tell the difference. Spacey is forced to act through more obvious and problematic prosthetics, but each brings great comic timing to their real-life caricatures, and Shannon especially finds the soul under all that gaudy jewelry and shook up shenanigans.
It is really their chemistry that not only delivers on the title, but also makes it worthwhile since even at the brisk running time of 86 minutes, Elvis & Nixon doesn’t find its groove until the second half when the worlds finally collide.
To get to that moment, there is generous amounts of time given to Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a former Elvis entourage hanger-on that has left the life to start a family with his girlfriend in LA. But right before Christmas, he finds himself very easily roped back into the game when Elvis (failing to fly incognito with a gun strapped to his waist) travels to the City of Angels to recruit Jerry for a mission: they will save America from drugs by meeting Nixon.
In actuality, Elvis seems most preoccupied with getting a badge for the self-invented position of “Federal Agent At-Large” from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Drenched in his full regalia, Elvis shows up at that White House lawn and… then waits. He waits for Nixon to approve the meeting, and he goes to the bureau himself to plead for the badge in between bouts of self-pity and donut breakfasts. Nixon, meanwhile, is presented as perpetually annoyed and hopelessly unhip. He’ll be damned before he lets that pelvis saunter into his Oval Office.
Perhaps luckily for this POTUS’ own posterity, aides Egil “Bud” Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) conspire with Jerry, and Elvis’ driver Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), to tip Nixon’s daughters off at the possibility of dear old dad meeting the King. Thus with the sudden and imperative desire to retrieve a photo and autograph for his child, Nixon bends to Bud, Dwight, and of course Elvis’ whims for a scheduled sitdown—it should be noted that within four years both Krogh and Chapin were sentenced to prison time in the aftermath of Watergate.
That is essentially the first half of this very brisk film. Yet, it all feels feels more like a pre-requisite and bit of heavy padding before the real start of the picture. In fact, the entire reason to see this movie will be to witness the amusing ways in which Presley and Nixon surprisingly hit it off. From discussing the finer points of karate and having handsome children, to Shannon’s Presley apparently implanting the idea of audio recorded conversations in the 37th President of the United States’ head, the film only begins to jam once these two good old boys find out how much they have in common.
Forced into what amounts to something of a blind date, the film’s Elvis and Nixon have an undeniable attraction despite Presley’s loopy ideas about being a secret agent at-large for the White House always sounding asinine—even to the man who subscribed to Kissinger’s “bomb Cambodia” policy.
While the meeting is obviously well documented, I have no idea how much of the film’s depiction of the men is fictionalized—or if the now timely assertions by Nixon about making peace in the Middle East’s gulf states were even on the docket in 1970. However, in the context of the film, these two have a wonderful odd couple chemistry where each’s alienating neuroses are presented as meet-cute connections.
Within this lens frame, Shannon again is a spaced out marvel as Elvis. Playing a man whose imitations have become a job description in Nevada, Shannon still fills all the holes in Elvis’ own logic with a surprisingly earnest (if oblivious) piety. He might be a man who thinks bringing a ceremonial World War II revolver to the White House seven years after Kennedy is a swell idea, but Shannon does it so grandly that you start to wonder if maybe Elvis has a point?
There is some conflict about Jerry getting home in time to spend Christmas Eve with his fiancée’s parents. But really the film’s catharsis comes the moment Spacey and Shannon begin riffing. At that point, Elvis & Nixon is like slipping on some late afternoon oldies and enjoying the kitschy nostalgia.
Elvis & Nixon is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is in theaters nationwide on Friday, April 22.