"Elvis & Nixon" Review
You've just got to trust me on this one. With its unique premise, two outstanding lead performances, a smart script and skillful direction, "Elvis & Nixon" will be one of the most memorable movies you'll see all year.
On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley went to White House and met with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. A photograph of these two icons shaking hands was taken, and to this day, it is still the most requested photo by visitors to the National Archives. In the wrong hands, "Elvis & Nixon", the fictionalized dramedy that provides the story behind this bizarre and fascinating meeting, could've been an absolute disaster. But director Liza Johnson makes sure this story doesn't come-off as a bad "SNL" skit, handling the tricky material appropriately, resulting in one of the most enjoyable film experiences I've had in a long time.
Michael Shannon plays The King of Rock-N-Roll. Shannon doesn't do the typical Elvis twang impersonation, a smart decision in that it allows us to quickly buy into his characterization. Disgusted with the Anti-American behavior of the young people at the time (sex, drugs and The Beatles), Elvis wants to work for the government and become a "Federal Agent At Large". He heads to Washington, D.C., uninvited, with longtime friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer). There, they meet-up with another member of The King's inner-circle, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), and at 7:30 a.m., Elvis heads to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, where Elvis walks up to the guards at the West Gate with a personal letter to President Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey) in hand, requesting a meeting.This may sound like the set-up to a bad joke, but when Presley arrives, one security guard says to the other, "It's Elvis." However, it's very important to keep in mind, while watching "Elvis & Nixon", that all of this, more or less, really did happen.
While the initial reaction by Nixon and most of the White House staff is to ignore Elvis's request, two of the President's top assistants (played by Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) see this as a great public relations (as in getting votes) opportunity, and their campaign to make this historic event happen sets the film's incredibly amusing narrative in motion.Johnson is able perfectly balance the tone of "Elvis & Nixon". She establishes a nice 70's vibe, and acknowledges the utter absurdity of every situation, yet treats them all with a straightforward respect worthy of a historical event. She's able to mix-in some of the serious political and societal themes of the times while keeping the fun meter at the highest level.
Unfortunately (?) Nixon didn't begin the infamous recordings of all his Oval Office conversations until a few months later, so it's unclear how much of the dialogue in this film was actually said. But that just doesn't matter. The verbal exchanges between these two icons is perfectly crafted and deviously playful. The screenplay (by three writers, including "Princess Bride" actor Cary Elwes) gives the entire ensemble opportunities to shine. And there's a sense of freedom in the script that could only work with a plot this wacky (for example, when Elvis encounters a couple of Elvis impersonators at an airport it seems, well, believable!). And there are several great scenes involving the reactions of fans, unexpectedly meeting The King.
"Elvis & Nixon" is filled with 70's music, but Johnson smartly chose NOT to include any Presley songs, even in the closing credits. This is a story about Elvis the Man - not the Myth or Legend - and the same goes for Nixon, who's portrayed as a hardworking, insecure and devoted family man. You can tell that Spacey, no stranger to playing a President, had a great time being Tricky Dick. He embodies Nixon's physical mannerisms and not-so-friendly persona. And Shannon's performance as Presley is one of the cinematic highlights of 2016 so far. He's remains completely restrained (even when demonstrating Karate to an amazed Nixon), avoiding all temptations to veer into stereotypes, and even has two showcase dramatic monologues that provide an emotional kick.