ELVIS & NIXON
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Liza Johnson
Written by: Joel Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxfille, Colin Hanks
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 4/14/16
Opens: April 22, 2016
Elvis Presley, one of the world’s best-known and loved entertainers, was the guy who added his bumping and grinding to the beat of his music during what was still a conservative period in America. For this signature movement, he was called Elvis and Pelvis, horrifying folks who thought that adoring Frank Sinatra was as far as you can get and still be considered clean and moral. You would expect Elvis to visit George McGovern, given the reputations that singers, entertainers and actors for being liberals, folks like the Beatles. Contrary to expectations, he wanted to meet President Nixon in 1971, though even here, we wondered whether he was doing that to convince him to end the Vietnam War. Oddly, his aim at the meeting was to be sworn in as an undercover federal agent with the Narcotics Division, notwithstanding his appearance as, well, Elvis Presley, and the fact that normally a person would look into open federal jobs and take the required civil service exam.
Together with his best buddy, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Elvis (Michael Shannon) made plans to meet the president but did so on the spur of the moment, while he was on board an aircraft from L.A. to D.C. in several pages of childish penmanship. He showed up with Jerry without an appointment, respectfully asking the ex-Marine on security inside the gate to deliver the letter personally.
Much of the humor of Liza Johnson’s narrative, one which imagines young, pretty women from the L.A. airport and salt-of-the-earth African Americans in a chintzy coffee shop, gaping at him as though they had just seen The King and of course they really did. Still, given the number of Elvis imitators, including one who chatted with him thinking he was yet another of the breed, it’s difficult to believe that almost everyone who sees him knows that he is the real thing.
While Michael Shannon, one of Hollywood’s best performers does not look too much like Elvis even given his substantial rug and certainly does not talk in the Memphis dialect of The King, Kevin Spacey as President Nixon does a phenomenal job of impersonating the awkward posture and distinct speech patterns of POTUS.
In explaining his desire to be a Federal agent, Elvis notes that he is disgusted with the drug-taking and anti-Americanism of our country’s youth, even firing his gun at a TV news broadcast showing people burning their draft cards and demanding an end to the war.
Much of the humor comes as well from Colin Hanks as the dorky-looking presidential assistant Egil Krogh (who in real life was indicted and jailed for his role in the Nixon Watergate cover-up). Looking as straight as an arrow and getting excited only once in telling his colleague Dwight Chapin that Elvis has not left the building, Hanks could represent the typical look of young American conservatives in the early seventies, a fellow who would undoubtedly be horrified by youth demonstrations.
Since Nixon recorded just about everything that went on his office, it’s strange that he did not do the same with his Elvis meeting, so we depend on the imaginations of writers Joel Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, to provide the dialogue.
As good as Shannon is—he can’t do wrong in anything he’s in—the gold star goes to Kevin Spacey for portraying a man who despite being in the highest office in the land was awkward, uncomfortable in his body, stooped over and nonplussed when Elvis hugged him at the conclusion of the meeting. As we see by the photo that ends the movie, the one with Elvis and Nixon posing happily and which has become the most asked-for picture in the National Gallery, the principal actors do not look that much like the people they portray, but you can become absorbed enough in the story to see the principal point: that when people looked at Elvis, they saw Elvis the pelvis. But like most of the rest of us, he was a real human being with human characteristics and apparently political enough to be disgusted with the behavior of anarchistic youth—who may well have thought of him as their idol.
Rated R. 86 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B-
Overall – B