It’s an interesting idea, but one which has unfortunately not yielded an interesting film.
On Dec. 21, 1970, Elvis Presley paid a visit to the White House, where he presented president Richard Nixon with a Colt 45 pistol and requested to be appointed a “Federal Agent at Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Presley also had his picture taken shaking hands with the president, and the resulting photo is today the single most-often requested photograph from the National Archives.
We know the meeting took place, and we can even read the letter Presley wrote to Nixon requesting the meeting. What we don’t know is what took place during the meeting, which predated Nixon’s obsessive taping of meetings and phone calls, which began in February 1971. This gap in our historical knowledge provides the occasion for Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, which imagines not only the meeting itself, but also the negotiations that brought the President of the United States and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll together.
It’s an interesting idea, but one which has unfortunately not yielded an interesting film. The main problem is the screenplay, written by the Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, which never establishes why we should care about any of this. It does produce a few laughs (well, perhaps a few titters), but relies on a raft of clichés, including the fact that nearly every female employee we see is young, cute, and driven half out of her mind over the prospect of meeting Elvis. Never mind that at this point Elvis was overweight, looked much older than his age of 36 years, and was far from the hottest ticket in town (his biggest hit in 1970 placed only 72nd on the Billboard Top 100, while the Top 3 hits were by Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters, and the Guess Who): according to this screenplay, young women with responsible jobs universally reacted to his presence as if they were twelve years old and he were all four Beatles arriving in the United States for the first time.
Kevin Spacey adopts some of the mannerisms and postures of Nixon for the role, but an odd makeup job leaves him looking mostly like Kevin Spacey with a touch of Nixon-ness evident from some camera angles. The effect is disconcerting and suggests that Spacey should have adopted Frank Langella’s strategy in Frost/Nixon and concentrated on embodying Nixon’s character rather than trying to look like him. Michael Shannon is more convincing as Elvis, although Elvis’s trademark big hair, big sideburns, and big glasses certainly make his job easier. Cinematographer Terry Stacey also does Shannon a favor by frequently shooting him from the side or back, or focusing on details of his clothing and jewelry, all of which help create a reasonable illusion of Elvis.
Shannon plays Elvis absolutely straight as a man who sincerely believed whatever was on his mind or coming out of his mouth at any given moment, no matter how crazy it might seem to anyone else. He also gets several Meaningful Speeches (including one about his twin, who was stillborn), all delivered well, but which fit uneasily into what is otherwise a light comedy.
Spacey’s makeup aside, the technical aspects of Elvis & Nixon are excellent, particularly the production design by Mara LePere-Schloop, art direction by Kristin Leki, and costume design by Felician Leilani Jarvis and Kasey Bazil Young. The soundtrack features music of the period, and title sequence featuring archival photos in psychedelic tints helps establish the historical context. Many of the smaller roles are filled by fine actors, including Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, and Tracy Letts. Given all the talent on board, it’s a shame they didn’t have better material to work with. | Sarah Boslaugh