Elvis & Nixon (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 86 min.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, Johnny Knoxville, Evan Peters
Small role: Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson
Director: Liza Johnson
Screenplay: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
Review published April 29, 2016
Taken in December of 1970, the photograph of the meeting between President Richard Nixon and superstar entertainer Elvis Presley is the most requested among all photographs in the National Archives. Not much is known regarding the genesis of their meeting, or of what the two very different men might have talked about in the White House before or after the snap took place, as the film emphasizes that this meeting occurred before Nixon's habit of surreptitiously recording all of his conversations. The premise of Elvis & Nixon is to create a comedic speculation on the nature of the meeting, the photograph, and what the Leader of the Free World and the King of Rock 'n Roll might have said to each other in the Oval Office behind closed doors.
In this semi-fictional yarn, the impetus for Elvis (Shannon, Midnight Special) wanting to meet with either J. Edgar Hoover or Nixon (Spacey, Horrible Bosses 2) is born from his growing discontent at seeing where America has been headed, particularly in the growing cultural unrest among its people, from the hippie movement, to the pot smokers, to the war protestors, to the Black Panthers. The King decides that he can actually help the country if he can be made a Federal Agent. Joined by his "Memphis Mafia" friends Jerry Schilling (Pettyfer, Endless Love) from Hollywood and bodyguard Sonny West (Knoxville, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Elvis travels to the White House in order to have an impromptu meeting with the President, hoping to convince him to get the badge he will need to carry out his "agent at large" duties. The road seems at an impasse, but Nixon's aides, sensing that a photograph of the two together could endear him come re-election time to large swaths of Elvis fans, particularly in the South, try to make it happen, despite Nixon's initial protests.
Elvis & Nixon is a mixed bag in terms of its cinematic worthiness, offering a nice, juicy vehicle for stars Shannon and Spacey to spread their wings into comedic interpretations, but the production does feel like a premise that could have been better served as a short, comedic film than as a full-length feature, especially as an uninteresting subplot fills up too much time involving Jerry Schilling's need to get back home to as his girlfriend's parents for her hand in marriage. Shannon is far from a dead ringer for Elvis, but he's acceptable in the semi-farcical portrayal, delivering the soft-spoken nature of Elvis in a genial, approachable way. This is an Elvis that lives so deep in the bubble of his own persona, it makes a certain sense that he would be out of touch with the reality of how the world is supposed to work, especially with all of his enablers and his fans who kowtow to his every whim. Equally impressive is Spacey, who keeps his caricature of Nixon mostly on the right side of believability, giving him an affability and vulnerability, even when he is at his most testy, that makes the oft-maligned leader a sympathetic, likeable and amusing character.
The film's lack of budget does, unfortunately show. Not only does it lack any Elvis songs, presumably due to the exorbitant royalty payments that would incur (lots of old soul oldies fill in respectably), but there's a good deal of stock and old film footage of external environments in 1970 that tip off that this film doesn't have big Hollywood money behind it, distributed by Amazon into theaters before its inevitable home on their Prime streaming service. Directed by indie veteran Liza Johnson, who worked with Shannon (who co-produces) previously in her 2011 feature Return, and scripted by actor Joey Sagal, his ex-wife Hanala Sagal, and actor Cary Elwes, the film stays watchable and mildly humorous throughout, making it an enjoyable, if insubstantial, exercise in making an absurdist, culture clash, cult-of-personality comedy premise out of a real life event that has sparked curiosity among fans of both men of the title for decades. It might be more their story than history, but they spin a pretty entertaining yarn with the premise. It's an odd duck of a film about two cultural figures who were, in many respects, quite an odd couple themselves, at least for a brief moment in time.
©2016 Vince Leo