Generations of Americans grew up with the reassuring presences of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. You can’t get much more iconic than blue suede shoes, the swiveling hips not on The Ed Sullivan Show, Checkers the Dog, and the Pumpkin Papers. It turns out the two men had more in common than the general public generally assumed. Liza Johnson gives the famous late December 1970 summit meeting a thinly fictionalized treatment in Elvis & Nixon (trailer here), which is now playing in New York after screening as the centerpiece of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
In late 1970, Presley was already a regular fixture in Vegas, but it would be eighteen months before he cut his milestone cover of “Always On My Mind.” The Gospel-singing man from Memphis has had enough of the hippies, New Left agitators, and Black Panthers he sees on television. After shooting out the TV (because he’s Elvis), he decides to fly to DC in order to meet with Pres. Nixon. The King has a half-baked notion of becoming a “Federal Agent At-Large,” not that such a thing exists.
To fulfill his mission, Presley slips out from under the Colonel’s thumb, calling on his old friend and former Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling to coordinate the logistics. Of course, even in 1970, nobody could just walk into the Oval Office, but Elvis Presley could get closer than most. He finds a key ally in Egil Krogh, the White House policy specialist on narcotics, who not so realistically envisions the King serving as a powerful spokesman for the administration’s anti-drug campaign.
Elvis & Nixon is a surprisingly gentle and nostalgic film that truly forgives the foibles of its subjects. Johnson and the trio of screenwriters, Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and actor Cary Elwes, zero in on the common ground shared by the two Horatio Alger figures. Frankly, it is downright shocking (in a good way), how steadfastly the film resists taking pot shots at the Nixon administration figures.
Although not an obvious candidate, Michael Shannon turns out to be an inspired choice for Presley. Granted, he hardly has that resonate baritone voice, but he can do Presley’s aura and bearing without resorting to shtick. He powerfully conveys both the pride and regrets of the man they still call “King.” As an added bonus, he shares some quietly effective scenes with Alex Pettyfer’s Schilling. On the other hand, it is harder for Kevin Spacey to avoid sliding into impersonation terrain as our beloved and reviled 37th President. At least his Nixonisms never feel vindictive or cheap.