Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes
Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacy, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks and Evan Peters
Runtime: 86 minutes
The day Elvis Presley met President Richard Nixon has become the stuff of legend, even being included the first episode of Comedy Central’s Drunk History. It’s a peculiar story that speaks volumes to the notion that celebrities take impossible notions into their heads and force regular people to get these things done for them and that politicians are always looking for ways to improve their image even if it has nothing to do with anything they actually stand for.
The story is that Elvis (Michael Shannon) gets angry at what he’s seeing on the news. He’s angry at the drug culture, the communists and what he sees as the decline of the country. He decides he wants a federal law enforcement badge that will allow him to go undercover and infiltrate these groups that are poisoning America and help destroy them (which is the official story he told…he also wanted it to avoid getting searched at airports so he could take his guns and drugs on planes without hassle). He flies to L.A. to get Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), an old friend who has removed himself from The King’s orbit to make his own life. Elvis convinces him to go with him to Washington D.C. to try and get a meeting with President Nixon (Kevin Spacy) to get this badge (which he knows exists because Bill Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle, showed him his own at a party, which put the entire notion into Elvis’ head) and also to smooth things over with Pricilla because he just up and left in the middle of the night without saying anything to anyone.
They get to D.C. and Elvis gives a letter he wrote on the plane to a couple of guards who say they can’t guarantee the letter will get to the President and then proceed to rush it through to his aids Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters, who played Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past), who want to get the meeting set up. Elvis, meanwhile, goes to a division of the F.B.I. to hedge his bets and try to get a badge going through the ‘proper channels’ (which obviously isn’t going to the academy and earning it). Nixon rejects the meeting but is eventually persuaded into it by his daughter, who want an autograph. When Elvis, Jerry and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), a tagalong friend of Elvis and Jerry, get to the White House for the meeting, Elvis proceeds to ignore every protocol that Krogh put forward, even deflating Nixon’s pride of having a moon rock in the Oval Office, telling Elvis Buzz Aldrin gave it to him and he can take the glass off and hold it if he wants. Elvis says he doesn’t need to because Buzz sent him one too. The conversation between the two is the comedic nadir of the film. Elvis wins over Nixon in minutes, causing Nixon to change his mind about trying to get pulled out of it after five minutes (he told Krogh to make something up to get Elvis to leave, but when the time came, Nixon just shrugs him off).
The script, by first time screenwriter Joey Sagal (brother to actress Katey Sagal from Married, with Children, Futurama and Sons of Anarchy), who until now has been an actor; his ex-wife Hanala Sagal, who has been an actress and screenwriter off and on since the late ‘70s and actor Cary Elwes, best known as Westly in The Princess Bride, who is also making his screenwriting debut here. With Elwes partially responsible for the screenplay, it’s easy to see why the film is so funny. Most of the humor stems from Nixon or Elvis just being who they were purported to be, Nixon the foul-mouthed Quaker with a quick temper who is easily flattered and Elvis who had been famous for so long he no longer knew what it was to be a regular person, despite how much he thought of himself as one. Most of the characters are well fleshed out (except Knoxville’s Sonny, who is just kind of there, but that seems to be where they wanted that character to go). They do tend to overuse jokes, like the myriad of firearms Elvis has on him at any given point, and make some sequences a little more overwrought than necessary, but never enough to bring the film down, though there are some inconsistencies in tone.
Those tonal differences are also the fault of director Liza Johnson. She makes everything flow well and there are no real pacing issues, but she doesn’t quite get the mood right when Elvis is depressed about being initially rejected for the Presidential meeting, so when he gets the call that the meeting is on, his face lights up but the mood of the scene never really changes. There is no sense of sadness or disappointment in the scene at all, which could either be a mishandling of the scene or the simple fact that we know the meeting took place, so the notion that it wasn’t going to happen was trying to create false emotion. There are a few scenes like that, but despite them, the film is well directed. The final third of the film, the meeting itself, is really well shot, sometimes taking a different approach with the camera or using an odd angle to show Nixon being put then kept off-balance by Elvis or not cutting to a reaction of Nixon while Elvis is making his point but allowing Shannon to hold the screen and Elvis to hold the attention.
To that end, Pettyfer, Knoxville, Hanks and Peters are all good in their respective roles, but the real show is Shannon and Spacy. Shannon gives us an Elvis that is free of caricature, making him a real person that struggles with how he is perceived yet continues to reinforce that perception. It’s a genuine and heartfelt performance by one of the best actors working today. Juxtapose that with Spacy whose impressionistic talents are on full display here. Spacy is known for his impressions (just watch the Star Wars casting videos he did on SNL) and he relishes sinking his teeth into Tricky Dick. He’s not as good as Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, but he’s still good and really funny by leaning on his profanity to drive it home a little more.
Elvis & Nixon is a pleasant little film that serves as a fun distraction, but little more. It’s not breaking any ground nor is it quite good enough, even in the acting, to be remembered long. But it is entertaining and knows not to take itself too seriously given the odd story it’s telling.