In December 1970, Elvis Presley turned up unannounced at the Northwest gate to the White House with a letter he wanted delivered to the president. See, Elvis was mighty worried about youth drug culture and he wanted to personally offer his assistance to the president. The letter requested a meeting with Nixon, and Elvis wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) wrote President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) a letter in shaky handwriting on American Airlines stationary and delivered it by hand to the White House. He was concerned about the youth of America and wanted to offer his services as a Federal Agent At-Large to go undercover and infiltrate the youth scene. He envisaged himself bringing down drug dealers and combating the concerning hippie elements he saw spreading among the youth. After negotiations between Nixon’s staff and Elvis’s boys, a meeting took place.
According to the National Archives of the United States of America, the photograph of Elvis meeting President Nixon in the Oval Office is the most requested image from the archive. You can see the image and other official documents related to the meeting here.
Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon is a snappy, entertaining interpretation of the rather bewildering historic event. The filmmakers stuck largely to the meeting itself, only expanding the net slightly to include a few supporting characters, chiefly Elvis’s close friend Jerry (Alex Pettyfer), and Nixon’s aides (played by Colin Hanks and Evan Peters). The film is the better for this narrow focus, its brisk pace and constant laughs engaging the audience throughout. As little is known of what actually took place behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, the filmmakers have had some fun here, creating what sometimes feels like an absurd skit or improv show. Elvis demonstrates karate, speaks earnestly about his studies of communist behavior, and confounds Nixon by doing everything that Nixon’s aides explicitly warned him not to do. The jokes have an exceedingly high hit-rate – it’s extremely well written and performed.
Michael Shannon has made Elvis his own here – it’s less of an impersonation and more of an interpretation of the King. Sure the hair and the costume is there, but he isn’t relying on Elvis’s rather showy body language to carry him through. As with many of Shannon’s performances, his power is in the eyes and the delivery. We see the confidence and swagger, but there’s also an unmistakable loneliness concealed within him. As Elvis says to Jerry, “People don’t see me when I walk into a room, they remember the first time the kissed their girl to one of my songs”. An amusing running joke throughout the film shows Elvis being able convince anyone to do whatever he asks of them, smothering their doubts and breaking their protocols down with his charm, and the magical power of just being in his presence.
Kevin Spacey’s Nixon is also excellent. Nixon’s voice and facial tics aren’t particularly challenging to imitate, but Spacey takes his performance further by embodying the bitter, cranky nature of Nixon – his annoyance and impatience is expressed in his frigid body movements and exasperated sighs. It is also worth mentioning Colin Hanks, who is very amusing as Nixon’s aide Krogh. He has such wonderful comedic timing here.
Elvis & Nixon is a remarkably entertaining portrayal of an iconic, bizarre event in American cultural history.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Liza Johnson
Writers: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Evan Peters, Colin Hanks
Runtime: 86 minutes