Just before Christmas in 1970, the biggest rock and roll star in the world, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), is sitting in his Memphis mansion of Graceland watching three TV’s simultaneously. Flipping through all the channels, Elvis comes across various news reports about a protest against the Vietnam War, illegal drug use and radical minority groups demanding civil rights. Disgusted with the condition of America, Elvis shoots all three TV’s with his ever present .45. Elvis goes to the Memphis airport and boards a plane for Los Angeles to pick up his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) who works as a film editor for a movie studio. Elvis convinces Jerry to accompany him on a trip to Washington D.C. On the flight to the nation’s capital, Elvis writes a letter on American Airlines stationary to President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) offering to become an undercover drug enforcement officer. Elvis and Jerry hand deliver the letter to a gate at the White House where it gets into the hands of Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), Deputy Assistant to the President. He then takes it to fellow presidential assistant Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and the two take the letter to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) arguing that having a popular figure like Elvis seen meeting the President could boost his likability with a broad cross-section of voters. Haldeman reluctantly agrees and allows Chapin and Krogh to approach Nixon with the idea. Nixon says no but when Jerry and fellow Elvis friend Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) meet with the White House aides, Jerry suggests involving Nixon’s daughters. Unable to say no to his daughter Julie, Nixon reluctantly agrees to see Elvis.
Based at least in part on an actual event, “Elvis & Nixon” takes a lighthearted approach to the subject matter turning a meeting between two of the most iconic figures in American history into a farce. Both men are utterly clueless about each other and about real life, turning their get together into a comedy of inappropriate behavior and ridiculous requests. As funny as this part of the movie is, the true strength of “Elvis & Nixon” is the relationships between the singer and his friend Jerry Schilling, as well as the work relationship between Dwight Chapin and Egil Krogh. Both are stellar examples of actors perfectly cast in well-written parts.
First and foremost, praise must be liberally heaped on to the two actors in the title roles. Both Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey are brilliant as Elvis and Nixon. Each could be forgiven for turning their characters into the kind of silly impressions we’ve seen on numerous television shows; however, each man does subtle things to suggest they are the character while bringing unique aspects to these two well-known men.
Shannon gives Elvis a quiet dignity while at the same time infusing the music icon with a simplistic view of life and the world. He wants to see the President so that shouldn’t be such a big deal, after all he IS Elvis. The script provides Elvis with a level of depth and understanding of how he is perceived by those around him and by the public that is at times heartbreaking. Elvis knows he has become a caricature and the gold jewelry and sunglasses is part of his costume. He is also aware of how some in his circle see him as a conduit to fame and wealth. Elvis is generous to a fault to those that work for him and he knows how some of his entourage takes advantage of that. While being aware, Elvis can’t help himself as the script makes it clear trying to buy people’s love and appreciation comes from a feeling of insecurity. Despite these fleeting moments of clarity, Elvis is also a bit self-deluded, thinking he can implant himself unrecognized with radical groups and drug dealers to work undercover for the government. This misplaced idea of how he can singlehandedly bring down these perceived threats to the country are almost as sad as his understanding of how some in his posse see him as a bank. Shannon’s dedication to both sides of Elvis’ personality as shown in the script is commendable.
Kevin Spacey, also known for playing another corrupt president in “House of Cards,” does a terrific job portraying Nixon. Showing the famously un-hip president giving in to the demands for a picture and autograph from his daughter, as well as the political benefits of being seen with one of the most popular entertainers in the world, shows the most powerful leader in the world capitulating to the desires of his then 22-year old youngest child. Spacey does a pretty good impression of Nixon, emphasizing his hand gestures, stooped posture and his frequently written about feeling of inadequacy. Both with his aides and with Elvis, the script has Nixon express his views about growing up poor, having to work hard with nothing handed to him and his opinion on the looks of Jack Kennedy. Spacey’s performance really comes alive during these bits of dialog as well as when Nixon is angered about something. Never falling into a comedic caricature, Spacey delivers a believable performance of a well-known historic figure.
Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks and Evan Peters all are terrific as Jerry Schilling, Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin respectively. Schilling is portrayed as a friend of Elvis wanting nothing in return. He merely wants to help his friend fulfill what he sees as a somewhat silly dream. Pettyfer gives an honest and grounded performance. It is also one that by the end of the movie sees the character grow into something different than when the film starts. Pettyfer is one of the few people within the Memphis Mafia that is able to tell Elvis the truth and isn’t looking to get anything from the relationship except friendship. Both Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, wearing simple business suits and slicked back hair, are the epitome of political underlings. Close to power but without any real power of their own, Krogh and Chapin are enthusiastic about their work in the White House but realistic about the man they work for. They see his weaknesses and attempt to mold what they say to the President in a way that will mostly likely guarantee acceptance of their ideas. It is a masterful bit of writing and it is delivered with zest and enthusiasm by Hanks and Peters.
The overall story of the film, while somewhat inconsistent, manages to capture the period of the early 1970’s and the different Americas contained within the one country. The separation of black and white culture, one that largely still exists today, is put into stark contrast by the film by never showing black and white people in the same places except by necessity. There is an obvious division of race that isn’t seen by Elvis even while he’s in the middle of it. The paranoia of Nixon and those on the right about the various movements within the country as well as the ramping up of the war on drugs is also captured by the movie. The whole point of Elvis desire to meet with the President springs from the feeling the U.S. was being overrun by communists and hippies. Law and order and patriotism are what Elvis wanted to spread around the country through his undercover work. Just like almost everyone else, the movie shows Nixon hoping to use Elvis to further his own agenda. Imagine that, a politician using a celebrity for political gain.
“Elvis & Nixon” is rated R for some language. The “F-Bomb” gets dropped by several people over the course of the film. There are also a few scenes of smoking.
While it’s a small film from a director that doesn’t have that many features under her belt, “Nixon & Elvis” deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It isn’t a deep and meaningful film. It doesn’t shine a light on the human condition and illuminate our place in the universe. “Elvis & Nixon” does nothing but entertain, putting two of America’s biggest cultural icons in a room together and letting the goofy chips fall where they may. It is a refreshing respite before the beginning of summer blockbuster season.
“Elvis & Nixon” gets five stars.
The countdown clock to “Captain America: Civil War” is nearing zero but we have one more week before the CG fireworks begin. This week, there’s a cat kidnapping, maternal musings and animated…animations coming to a screen near you. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.
Mother’s Day— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BPr217zLps
Ratchet & Clank— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZqmL677X-g
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