A Review of Elvis & Nixon by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Four Reels
In outward appearance, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon could not be more different. One’s the King of Rock N’Roll idolized by millions of fans, the other is an awkward, hard-nosed Republican politician whose idea of “fun” is Security Council meetings. Yet inwardly, they have the same drives and interests, and on one crazy afternoon fate brought them together for a few precious moments. Elvis & Nixon is fun, thrilling, and incredibly strange – proof a good movie can be made about really anything.
The whole episode only took thirty-six hours to transpire. Elvis (Michael Shannon) is watching several televisions at once at home in his Graceland palace and is thoroughly disgusted by the amount of the crime, drug use, and proliferation of the counterculture he sees, shooting the screens rather than simply using the remote. He then enlists a former member of his entourage Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) to help him with a bold scheme: convince President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) to make him a “Special Agent At-Large” to infiltrate radical groups like the Black Panthers and expose their crimes. Elvis feels his background in Hollywood costuming and karate make him especially qualified for the job. For any other person, the request would be ludicrous, but this is the King. Through pure charisma, Elvis is able to get his request considered and their meeting produced an image that remains to this day the most requested photo from the National Archives.
In his later years, Elvis Presley epitomized “celebrity,” the last vestige of European divine right kings in an American republic. Due to a carefully crafted image and persona, he was able make people do things that would be impossible under any other circumstance. When he decides to meet the President rather than work through a long list of agents and personnel, he simply walks up to the North Gate with a hand-written letter and expects to be let in. Rather than dismiss him, the guards bring his letter directly to Undersecretary Krogh (Colin Hanks) who thinks the meeting could help Nixon’s relationship to the youth. When Elvis shows up to the meeting with no less than three handguns on his person, the secret service politely ask him to leave his weapons at the door rather than arresting him. Nixon, too, had this aurora over being above the climate around him. His underlings are constantly walking in and out of the Oval Office, meeting his every need whether it be a phone call with the President of Brazil or to refill his dish of candy. He even brushes off the meeting Elvis because it interferes with his “naptime.” While this kind of privilege is certainly excessing and sometimes downright oppressive, there is a certain dignity from each of these men that elicits this response. At least in their cases, it is earned through a lifetime of accomplishments. I have no idea why people treat Kylee Jenner this way.
This kind of delicate treatment, where one’s every move is watched, does not automatically make for a happy life. As Shakespeare noted: “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Both men feel compelled by their office to right the wrongs of the world and both lead lives that take them far away from their loved ones for days at a time. Elvis admits that he has been the King so long that he no longer knows that “boy from Memphis.” In the film’s most beautiful scene, Elvis, alone and without his entourage, admits that his profound loneness comes from the early death of his twin brother and whether God blessed him to compensate for the loss. What is not mentioned in the film is that Nixon’s older brother also died from TB, leaving a devastating impact on the small boy. When the titans finally meet, they quickly find common ground over their struggle to come out of obscurity and poverty. They also both hate Communism, hippies, drugs, and the Beatles. Soon, they are planning to remake the world as fast friends. As odd pairing as they seem, perhaps they have found in each other the first person who truly knows what the other is feeling.
Elvis & Nixon is the kind of film best demonstrates “entertainment.” The writing funny, touching, and incredibly well paced. Every scene moves these two people forward towards one another just an inch until the tension is skull crushing. The acting is also brilliant. Shannon and Spacey look absolutely nothing like their historical counterparts but their movements, mannerisms, and style of speaking is so convincing it doesn’t matter. This is a movie that does a lot with a little. The sets are simple but perfectly styled. The costumes are accurate but not gaudy. There are important themes woven into the narrative, but they never get in the way of story or the humor. It’s the perfect outing for a Monday night with nothing to do.
Ultimately, this meeting was one of those weird events in US history that’s just too good to pass up. It’s bizarre. It’s dumb. It has no real reason to exist. Yet even in this brief moment, the audience learns something about American values, 70s estrangement, and the need for true friends and family. This is a small film that won’t win any awards, won’t be on any best ten lists, and few people will see. That’s a crying shame.