It is comedy and it is history. A photo of Elvis Pressley shaking President Nixon’s hand is the most requested item asked for from the National Archives. Fact is stranger than fiction. Seeing this quirky film after voting in Indiana ‘s Primary was especially pleasing. Seeing these two right-wing world-viewers cavort and then voting for Sanders made me smile. Nixon in one scene asks , “Do you think there would be an Elvis if this land were Communist?” Nixon often refers to himself as ” leader of the free world”.
This is the second comedy made about the Oval Office meeting of Elvis Pressley and Nixon. I have not seen the 1997 ” Elvis Meets Nixon” written by Alan Rosen, but I can say that Liza Johnson has directed a marvelous show in the 2016 “Elvis and Nixon”. The introduction is artful with colorful sliding inserts and the music so in sync that you will applaud the detail given to each underscored lyric. This is niche cinema at its best.
Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” with its “Ride a painted pony” is perfect for this carousel ride which teams up Michael Shannon (Elvis) with Kevin Spacey ( Nixon). Male insecurities and male balancing puffery is both hilarious and a tad moving. Johnson hits a balance that has the viewer enjoying this ” hard to handle” duo.
The sub-story of Jerry Shilling ( Alex Pettyfer), Elvis’ friend and later manager of Billy Joel, is likewise touching. Jerry is asked to proofread Elvis’ handwritten letter to Nixon ( on American Airline stationery) and to take care of Priscilla when she is unhappy with Elvis’ spending. Elvis, in turn, pulls some savvy maneuvers to get Jerry a seven minute escort to the airport and back home in time for a pre-engagement dinner with his intended’s father. Elvis knows how to “snooze”, even praising the marines over the army and navy to ingratiate himself with the “palace guards” outside the White House. But he also knows how to be a friend.
Much of the film is Michael Shannon’s Elvis making headway into the Oval Office. One of my favorite scenes is where he takes a commercial airline and runs into three Elvis impersonators who think he is one of them. One asks, ” Do you do ‘Teddy Bear’ ?” . The real Elvis answers, ” Sometimes” without smirking. Another is when Elvis’s sweet tooth takes him to a donut shop. ” Original, my ass, maple bars” is a line well- delivered twice! The writing of Joey and Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes is top-notch. The Sagals play minor parts as secretary and Elvis impersonator. They are good on screen, too.
Shannon and Spacey push and pull when they finally meet. Nixon could use a political boost in the South with the youth vote, and Julie, his daughter wants an Elvis autograph. Tricia, Nixon’s eldest daughter, prefers The Beach Boys. Nixon doesn’t like his nap hour interrupted. He has a disciplined routine with M&M’s and Dr. Pepper playing a part. Elvis wants to help with the war against drugs, to be an undercover rock and roller. He really wants a Federal Agent At Large badge. As he cracks his knuckles, he tells the President that he can supply his own firearms.
Kevin Spacey has the Nixon hunched shoulders, arms folded, impersonation down; but, he is tantamount at showing his “bubble bursts” of defeat. As Nixon expounds about the magnificence of the Capitol Building, in his soft voice, Elvis innocently responses with, ” It looks a little like my place.” When Nixon tells Elvis he may go ahead and touch the moon rock on display, Elvis tosses out that ” Buzz sent me one, too.” Spacey is the one who ” crumbles like a sand dune.”
This is Elvis’ movie, and we learn a lot about him. His penchant for numerology, his acknowledgement of the masks he is forced to wear, his preening and privilege. Cultural icons are rather silly. Shannon does an admirable job in showing this. He is always onscreen and we follow his every move. We are amused at how in awe many are. No deep psychological studies here, but smiles at behaviors that show glimpses of personhood and of delusion.