Elvis Presley was the Beyoncé of his time—or at least, the closest I could personally identify with in terms of pop superstardom, to the point where every person in the room would gasp and or scream at the sight of the celebrity. I guess those who don’t like Bey might equate Taylor Swift, but I can firmly say that those people are wrong.
Now Elvis and Nixon is a fun movie, short enough that it gets straight to the point and almost as quickly finishes its storyline. At less than an hour and a half long, Elvis and Nixon takes an absurd, real premise and gives it life through strong physical performances on the part of Michael Shannon Elvis and Kevin Spacey as our former President.
Shannon’s Elvis is The King, after his prime, but before his health declined. He wants to meet with pre-Watergate President Nixon to discuss his concerns with the nation’s youth culture and the world’s problems, specifically, drug abuse. Yes, you’ve read that right—Elvis wanted to help the DEA with drug enforcement, so much so that he wrote a letter to the sitting president and tried to hand-deliver it to the White House. Elvis sauntered up to the guards and requested that they deliver the letter, terrible penmanship and all, to Nixon, as soon as possible. It’s a matter of national security, you see.
His quest is met with befuddlement from his closest allies, strangers, and even Nixon, who sums up the prospective meeting with a perfect response: “Who the fuck set this up?” Well, Elvis is did. Technically his friend and “head of personal public relations” Jerry Schilling did a lot of legwork in terms of direct correspondence with White House officials, but Elvis is the one who came up with it all, bought the plane tickets, took himself to the airport, got detained for having weapons, released, and eventually made his way to D.C. This movie is a ride.
As a fan of the absurd as well as the weird-yet-true, I was pleased to learn that Cary Elwes had a hand in the co-writing the script, and that so many of the events actually occurred, and that the documentation of the events are housed in The National Archives. When Elvis has to pull out all of his weapons during the Secret Service’s check, it’s no joke that he was carrying. One of the characters from the film, Egil “Bud” Krogh, played by Colin Hanks, actually wrote an entire book on this—The Day Elvis Met Nixon, which is one of the sources for the film. However, the subplot with Schilling and his girlfriend (played by Sky Ferreira) seemed to exist solely to remind us that there was a real world outside of this story. I’m not sure that it was entirely necessary, but it gave Elvis a chance to have a heart-to-heart with one of his few true friends. This bit of character development is hard to pull off in a biopic, let alone a historically based comedy. Shannon is funny as Elvis, but he also takes care to show that Elvis wanted to be treated like a regular person. I’m just not certain that the film has the same goals.
This movie makes a quick encounter with a historic meeting between two giant personalities, and luckily, director Liza Johnson handles the two actors’ spectacle well. Without a skilled director, Shannon and Spacey’s characters could have quickly gotten into Saturday Night Live territories of caricature rather than the studied versions found in Elvis and Nixon. The two actors have a taste for comedy that works well in this kind of film, where prior knowledge of their lives or behavioral tics can make or break the performance, and heavy-handedness might grow old quickly.
These two names alone evoke a strong reaction, in much the same way Beyoncé does for us now. Elvis’s love of grandeur permeates this characterization, through detailed shots of gold and diamonds, jewelry, and a pair of fancy glasses inscribed with “EP.” Nixon fans will be pleased to see that Spacey’s interpretation is far away from his Frank Underwood character in House of Cards, but is nonetheless trapped within the confines of the Oval Office. He doesn’t get much to do other than glare disapprovingly at his staffers until Elvis walks in, but the wait is well worth it.
At the end of the screening, we were all treated to a Q&A with the director, and she answered one of my biggest questions—why were there no Elvis songs? The answer is disappointing: there was no conflict with the estate, but they had to request the songs for clearance in advance of the film’s creation and because that did not occur, there are none. This is a big disappointment, but the chosen music is actually representative of the type of music Elvis enjoyed. It’s certainly not the same, but Elvis fans should expect this disappointment in advance.