Liza Johnson, “Elvis & Nixon” (2016)
Based on an actual incident in which the famous rock singer Elvis Presley turned up unannounced at the White House some time in 1970, wanting to meet the then US President Richard Nixon to discuss the state of America’s youth and the dire direction the country was supposedly heading in, what with the civil rights movement in full throttle, the ascent of the hippie culture and the associated psychedelic drug scene, and the fear that godless Communists were infiltrating society through the music popular with young people … “Elvis & Nixon” turns out to be a light and fluffy comedy affair, albeit with subterranean currents that provide plenty of food for thought. Through its careful character studies of both Presley and Nixon, the film has a great deal to say about the cult of fame and celebrity and how it affects individuals like Presley, the self-interest and cynicism prevalent in both politics and the entertainment world and the extent to which Presley and Nixon try to use each other for their own benefit, and the pathos behind Presley’s quest to be heard out by the world’s most powerful politician and his attempt to be something of significance and not just an entertainer.
On the surface, one couldn’t imagine two people more unlike each other than a famous rock’n’roll singer and a very conservative politician not at all interested in American youth to have much in common. The film spends a considerable amount of time building up the two men, revealing Presley (Michael Shannon) as a lonely, isolated individual, engrossed in conspiracy theories and sometimes bizarre hobbies, at once knowing and also touchingly naive; and Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as self-centred, grasping and concerned with his own self image. When the two men eventually meet – after their aides have gone to enormous lengths to set up the meeting that involve a fair amount of duplicity and manipulation – the rock star and the politician discover they have had many similar experiences arising from their fame and the isolation it imposes, and the two men readily bond together.
Shannon and Spacey turn in stunning performances though Shannon gets far more screen time and his character becomes both sympathetic and pathetic in his obsession with obtaining a Federal police badge and becoming an undercover agent at large using his rock star fame as cover to spy on other rock music artists. The moment during which Presley rehearses what he will say to Nixon and mentions his long-dead twin brother Jesse reveals a personality starved for real connection and wanting to be loved as a human being, not as a stereotype cultivated by music industry advertising, is very moving and reveals something of Presley’s vulnerability, loneliness and desire for authentic connection beneath the bravado. Nixon is persuaded by his aides, who have an eye on the President’s popularity rating with the public, to meet Presley: initially Nixon refuses but his aides secretly meet with Presley’s bodyguards and the foursome concoct a plan (almost verging on conspiracy and which can be seen as a forerunner to the corruption that became the Watergate scandal) that involves Nixon’s young adult daughters.
The movie does not belong just to its main characters: considerable time is given over delineating the characters of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Presley’s confidant who wants to be with his girlfriend, and of Nixon’s White House official Krogh (Colin Hanks) who is perhaps a little too good at conniving and manipulating – in real life, Krogh was to be caught up in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon from the Presidency and as a result the aide spent several years in prison. Schilling does not do much with his character but Hanks nearly steals the show in most scenes with spot-on timing and hilarious facial expressions.
It’s a pity that the film does not do more with its characters and plot than to have them meet to talk about something that afterwards they will quickly discard: Presley gets his badge but apparently decides not to be an undercover agent (so was the whole idea a ruse just to meet Nixon?) after all and Nixon resumes bombing Vietnam, taking America off the gold standard and plotting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as to which unfortunate Third World country is next on the hit list for invasion and having its government overthrown. The irony that the film misses is that Presley was to die seven years after the meeting from being addicted to and ingesting too many pharmaceutical substances. Of all the people needing firm guidance to stay away from addictive drugs, it was Presley himself who needed this message. The film probably could have continued for some time after the meeting, with Tricky Dicky Nixon and his bureaucrats well on the road to personal ruin and Presley retreating into his Graceland cocoon, unable to overcome the layers of fame and convince his audiences that he is more than just a rock singer and bad actor.
As it is, “Elvis & Nixon” is a light-hearted way to spend an hour and twenty-five minutes. The meeting between the two men perhaps deserves to be treated more seriously as a documentary.