In February of 1971, President Richard Nixon installed recording devices in the Oval Office.
On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley visited the White House. Whatever was discussed in that meeting has been kept a secret by everyone involved, until now, with Elvis & Nixon.
That’s a flat out lie. Still no one knows what went on besides Nixon and Elvis. Elvis’ friend Jerry Schilling, as well as Nixon’s top aides, Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin, might have some clue about certain parts of the meeting, but the two key players have long passed away, leaving that meeting as secretive as a second grader’s diary found under her bed. In perhaps one of the most absurd actor/figure pairings since Bruce Campbell as the king in Bubba Ho-Tep, Michael Shannon dons his best karate skills as Elvis, while Kevin Spacey takes a break from his presidency in House of Cards to play Nixon. Joining the team are Alex Pettyfer as Schilling, Colin Hanks as Krogh, and Evan Peters as Chapin. And yes, the two female characters glorify their men.
Nonetheless, if you can get past the actors looking nothing like their historical counterparts, then you would surely understand and love the tone of this movie. In fact, besides Elvis, I’m sure we as an audience and the people as some pretty ugly ’70s characters are all grateful that we’re staring at actors who represent them characteristically as opposed to in the flesh and blood.
And that’s what makes the film. At this point, people could either turn away, questioning why they chose to film six basic characters in a comedy that people aren’t interested in. It’s not Watergate, nor is it Elvis’ time in the Army: it’s a plain hour meeting between a well-loved musician and a not-so loved president. The film doesn’t set out to portray events as they happened, but neither does it claim to be an interpretation; rather, just taking historical facts and anecdotes and combining them with the general emotions of the top cats.
Once you get over this change, the film becomes wildly entertaining and rather hilarious. I went in expecting a dramedy, a story featuring Nixon suffering from declining poll numbers, the ongoing energy crisis; perhaps a few references to Cambodia and the Middle East. The film completely turns it around, focusing only on Elvis & Nixon, the phone tag between the two parties until the coerced meeting between the two. The film quickly turned to comedy within minutes, featuring Elvis’ famed karate dance, or his trying to board a plane with multiple guns.
In an almost upset turn of events, the audience finds itself asking “Why are we here?” But because of that questioning, we just can’t help but find ourselves entertained. Director Liza Johnson’s take on the meeting, which already offers so little in factual terms, gives the audience a new found meaning to “emotions.” No, I’m not going to pull out a chaise and a sketchpad here, but the film, for whatever context it lacks, offers a peephole into Presley’s mind that fans, as well as casual listeners from this century, just wouldn’t have put much thought into.
Sure, we all know his wife Priscilla wrote that Presley wanted a badge for “ultimate power,” that “with the federal narcotics badge, he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.” And we also know that Presley had a twin who died at birth. It’s common fact, but never once did anyone stop to think if it had some profound effect on Elvis to become the star that he was.
This film truly digs deep into the emotions of Elvis and those around him. Maybe Elvis never really did put much thought into his twin, but maybe he did. The remarkably brilliant aspect about filming something no one knows about is the amount of hypothetical questions that can be asked are astronomical. We never will truly know what happened in that meeting, nor will we ever know what went through everyone’s minds, but one thing for sure: this film, no matter how far from the truth it may get, is entertaining and will exceed expectations in terms of laughter and storytelling.
We screened the film at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.