Elvis & Nixon (2016)

  • Time: 86 min
  • Genre: Comedy | History
  • Director: Liza Johnson
  • Cast: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Evan Peters, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville


On a December morning in 1970, the King of Rock ‘n Roll showed up on the lawn of the White House to request a meeting with the most powerful man in the world, President Nixon. Starring Academy Award® nominee Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley and two-time Academy Award® winner Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, comes the untold true story behind this revealing, yet humorous moment in the Oval Office forever immortalized in the most requested photograph in the National Archives.


  • There is only one word I can use to describe 2016’s Elvis & Nixon: Fascinating. I remember as a kid, seeing a picture of two exceedingly prominent people and wondering how the heck “Tricky Dicky” and “the King” found a way to get together. Now I sort of have an idea. That is, if what took place is of the non-fiction variety.

    With a grainy yet sunny look, background tunes by Otis Redding plus CCR, and period detail of the highest order, “&” is small-scale but it’s so far one of the best films of this year. It is not in any way, a serious drama or even a pastiche. No Elvis & Nixon is played as a straight comedy with Elvis Presley as an eccentric goofball and Richard Milhous Nixon as a guy who’s hard on the outside and soft on the inside. The humor in “&” is sort of dry, sort of coaxing, and all the while deadpanned. And by the time the 37th U.S. President and Tennessee’s badass Rock n Roller meet (within the flick’s final half hour), you’re slapped with a slight sense of delirium. You as an audience member, occasionally laugh and are always smiling. I mean, at least I was.

    Taking place about four years before I was born, Elvis & Nixon harks back to December 21st, 1970. According to the proceedings, Elvis may have been a singing icon but he sure wasn’t as important as California’s big man in the Oval Office. Presley traveled to Washington, D.C., unannounced and with an entourage of like two people. He had to try his butt off to get to see Nixon. With his funky glasses, his spreadeagle capes, and his silvery collection of firearms in tote, the man who loves peanut butter and banana sandwiches didn’t have anything on debriefing methods or the almighty Secret Service. Anyway, the story goes like this: Elvis Aaron Presley (played by Michael Shannon) is bored. The film begins with him lounging at his Memphis estate, watching the news (on four to five screens) and longing to be a celebrity ambassador to the U.S’s anti-drug campaign. At four in the morning, he decides to board a plane to Los Angeles. There, he picks up his good friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and the two fly to our nation’s capital. Presley’s agenda: Go to the White House, drop off a letter to President Richard Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey) and hopefully get a chance meeting of five minutes. Elvis happily wants Nixon to swear him in as an undercover agent via the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Said meeting between the most famous people in America is a hoot (spoiler). While noshing on M&M’s, drinking Dr. Pepper, and taking a lot more time than expected, Elvis eventually gives Richard a gift (a WWII gun I think) and shows him a few karate moves (ha-ha). The whole sequence is pretty surreal and uncanny.

    In terms of the performances, well Elvis & Nixon has three that are near-perfect. Michael Shannon may not look or even talk like Tupelo’s favorite son. However, he gets a pass for being a great actor anyway. Plus, he delivers his lines in a manner that just makes him flat-out likable. As for Kevin Spacey, well he obviously doesn’t resemble the resigning Republican with the crinkly nose. No matter. The camera turns one way, the lighting is just right, and “Verbal” Kint absolutely absolves himself in this role. The voice, the mannerisms, the head tilted down. It’s all perfect. Finally, there’s Alex Pettyfer. Ever since he starred in Magic Mike, I figured the dude would go on to be a big movie star. I haven’t seen him in anything lately but here, he does excellent supporting work as Presley’s reserved aide (the real-life Schilling).

    In conclusion, the iconic photograph of Nixon and Presley is considered one of the most indelible images in the history of American culture. It’s mind-boggling that it took forty-six years to finally bring the subject to the silver screen. Director Liza Johnson (2011’s Return) and three screenwriters fashion something whimsical, something special, and something kind of offbeat with “&”. Nothing in frame seems to be taken too seriously. And watching the interaction between the title characters along with their journey to meet one another, is mildly exhilarating in a time capsule sort of way. You feel like you’re being placed in the early 70’s while just observing an ordinary, Monday afternoon. Now another motion picture about the lava lamp decade is about to hit theaters in three weeks (Russell Crowe’s latest, The Nice Guys). I sure hope it’s as good as Elvis & Nixon. “Thank ya, thank ya very much”. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

    Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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  • At the beginning of Elvis & Nixon there is a disclaimer that no one really knows what happened during this meeting. We know that it happened and we know what Nixon thought of it and what Elvis wanted from it. But the meeting wasn’t recorded and, for a great deal of the time, there was no one else present. The possibilities are staggering. Unfortunately, the filmmakers went for the mundane and ordinary rather than the possibilities of a loopy apocalyptic government takeover or Elvis trying to teach Nixon how to sing rock and roll or discovering they were both aliens from the planet Zaslow bent on controlling the earth.
    The writers, Joey and Hanala Sagal, along with Cary Elwes, would have been hard pressed to write a good SNL skit for all the imagination they used with this movie. The characters are all one-dimensional and have a very limited, some more than others, range of emotions. The plot follows the history pretty well, but there are no builds, no excitement, to move the story along and make you want to see what happens next. If you don’t care what happens next, then you are not being entertained.
    Liza Johnson, the director, keeps the physical aspects of the movie moving. How she allowed some of the performances is beyond me.
    The biggest offender in the performance department is Michael Shannon as Elvis. His Elvis, with no explanation for it in the movie, appears to be on tranquilizers. His emotional, vocal, and physical levels are all almost flat. The only difference between a happy moment and disturbing moment for this Elvis is for one of them, he smiles. Shannon is a much better actor than what he does in this movie. People have emotional responses that go above and below the middle line, the homeostatic level of their existence. I saw elements of what I have seen of Elvis in videos and home movies but never that constant.
    At the other end was Kevin Spacey’s Nixon which was a spot-on characterization. This Nixon goes through a range of emotional responses to Elvis and we see them all. This made Spacey’s Nixon much more than just an impersonation, although he had the mannerisms and physical behavior down.
    Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville play, respectively, Jerry and Sonny, two guys who accompany Elvis on this trip. They are so completely controlled by Elvis that when Pettyfer’s Jerry breaks away so he can get home and meet his girlfriend’s parents, he is afraid of what might happen. Colin Hanks plays Nixon’aide Bud Krogh and is caught between protocol and celebrity. Hanks’s performance is easily the funniest in the movie and it all comes from the situation and the contradictions he find himself trapped in. Also in the cast are Tracey Letts and Tate Donovan in cameos around the White House
    I give Elvis & Nixon 3 M&Ms our of 5. Go see it if you want, but I’d suggest you wait until it’s on TV. The small screen might work better for this movie.

  • Perhaps one of the oddest moments in White House history occurred on December 21, 1970. That was the day the King of Rock and Roll met with the President of the United States. The photograph of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office is the most requested image from the millions housed in the National Archives, and it’s no small wonder. Apart from the fact that they were two of the most famous men of their time, the moment captured a time when both were about to tip into the oft-imitated caricatures they would go on to be.

    At the time of their meeting, Nixon was two months away from fully embracing his tricky dickness by installing his infamous taping system in the White House. Presley was 35, bloat taking over his pretty boy features and sausaged into his caped jumpsuits; he wasn’t quite over the hill but he was getting there and fast. Elvis & Nixon, directed by Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) and written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, imagines how these two larger-than-life characters came to cross paths.

    Riled by the news reports of the various problems plaguing the world, Presley decides to fly out to Washington, D.C., intending to meet the President so that he can become a Federal Agent-at-Large and bust all the Commie hippies. His plan is initially thwarted by White House guards, who are so swayed by his presence that they agree to forgo the usual security clearances and deliver Presley’s handwritten request to the President. The request is seen by Nixon’s aides, Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who attempt to convince a reluctant Nixon that the meeting would be a golden PR opportunity to not only appear more hip to the younger voters but to win over all the demographics. Everybody loves Elvis, they reason. The Commander-in-Chief eventually yields, especially after his starstruck daughter Julie personally calls to sway him.

    The meeting is the highlight of this slight and insubstantial film. Elvis immediately disregards all protocol – helping himself to the President’s off-limits bowl of M&M’s, sending the Secret Service into a tizzy by gifting Nixon with a World War II-era Colt pistol – and to observe Nixon succumb to Presley’s celebrity is one of the film’s few unalloyed delights. Nixon may be President but Presley is without a doubt the most powerful man in the room. “Looks a little like my place,” Presley remarks about the White House. When Nixon proudly shares a moon rock given to him by Buzz Aldrin, Presley deflates him: “That’s cool, man. Buzz sent me one, too.”

    Spacey’s gift for mimicry serves him well though it’s difficult not to mistake his Nixon for a muted Frank Underwood at times. Shannon makes no concession to look and sound like Presley, but he perfectly and often poignantly captures the King’s awareness of how his celebrity isolates, entitles and empowers. He hides behind the persona, using it to get his way, even though he often wishes that people would get to know the man behind the image. He may wield his celebrity like a shield, but it’s also a prison and his exchanges with longtime confidante Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) attest to the weariness at having to be Elvis when he perhaps only wants to be a boy from Tupelo, Mississippi.

    Elvis & Nixon doesn’t really get anywhere and side stories such as Jerry’s conflict over remaining Presley’s sidekick or breaking free to have his own life gain very little traction. There are several kicky moments, such as Presley’s encounter with a pair of impersonators and the scene in which all the females working in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs just about lose their minds at the prospect of meeting the King. Ultimately, as frequently entertaining as these scenes are, they’re mere fripperies from the main event which truly enlivens the film and to which more focus should have been given.

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