Directed by modestly successful indie producer, director, and writer Liza Johnson, and with a screenplay by a team of three writers with varied experience, Elvis and Nixon is a feature-length film based on next to nothing: a single photograph of late U.S. President Richard Nixon standing beside Elvis Presley, apparently in the Oval Office of the White House. It is the most often requested item from the U.S. National Archives. The photograph is the only solid piece of evidence that there was a meeting of some kind between the two men, but there are few known facts about the event, only vague rumours and a few bizarre urban legends. Elvis and Nixon combines these rumours and forms them into a moderately plausible, tolerably entertaining account.
The story begins in late 1970. We see Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) in Nashville, scanning televised news reports of anti-war protests and scenes of civil unrest, then impulsively shooting out the picture tube. Disturbed by recent news, and by a handful of upsetting personal events, such as having his handguns confiscated when he tries to board a commercial flight, Presley begins to ponder how he might use his fame to stabilise the nation. It gradually emerges that he has grandiose fantasies of becoming a secret government operative of some kind.
Presley sends a hand-written letter to President Nixon, requesting a meeting and openly asking to be deputised, so that he can use his influence to fight drug use and Communism. He suggests an assignment as “federal agent at large.” Nixon has no interest, but starstruck White House employees manage to expedite a meeting, eventually convincing Nixon that a connection with such a popular celebrity would be beneficial to Nixon’s shaky public image.
The actual meeting is delightfully awkward. Elvis refuses to follow protocol, and the two men fall into a subtle battle of one-upmanship, refusing to be condescended to. They end up making a connection, at first over trivia, but ultimately discovering common ideologies in unexpected areas. Nixon agrees to pose for the famous photograph, and the film goes on to combine fact with rumour as to Elvis Presley’s official status following the meeting. A few indirect references to the politics of the era, and hints at the political scandals still to come, will be entertaining for students of the 1960s.
With two central characters so frequently parodied and caricatured over the years, the performances of the actors playing Nixon and Presley will inevitably be a main focus of the film. Kevin Spacey gives us a realistic, toned down version of Richard Nixon, recognisable but humanised rather than exaggerated. Nixon’s notorious cageyness comes across nicely as he attempts to keep his visitor in his place. Michael Shannon as Elvis takes a different approach, giving us an Elvis with only a trace of the familiar voice and quirks, and adding a distinct touch of creepiness to his egotism and obsessiveness.
There is not really enough material to sustain interest over the course of a full length film, but the director and team of scriptwriters make the most of an historic oddity, giving us something which is, at the very least, strange and original.
For further viewing:
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