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Elvis & Nixon (2016)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks

Written By: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes Directed By: Liza Johnson

The Shot

An absolutely absurd but absolutely true meeting between two of the most mythologized figures in recent American history gets a somewhat absurd but surprisingly tender and slightly melancholy big screen interpretation.  Never mind how accurate it is or isn’t; Elvis & Nixon still makes for an interesting hour and a half.

The Highball

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


If anything could describe a meeting between two mythic figures like Elvis and Nixon, it’s that.

Pairs Well With...


Not quite what Nixon kept in the Oval Office, but hey.

“Thank you.  Thank you very much.”

On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley met President Richard Nixon at the White House.  The photograph commemorating that meeting is the most requested photo in the history of the United States National Archives.

That much is absolutely true.  As for the rest…

The rest, as the end credits helpfully note, is inspired by true events but “fictionalized.”  After all, it’s not like Nixon recorded everything that went on in the Oval Office, right?  (In fact, on the date in question, he didn’t.  That was a habit he picked up later.)

But you know what?  As long as you understand going in that it’s fictionalized (and I think we all know by now that we should never accept dramatized history as accurate anyway; right, Mr. Stone?), that’s totally cool.  After all, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon (here played by non-look-alikes Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey) may have been real people, but even before their deaths, they were and remain today two of the most heavily mythologized figures in recent American history.  Given the utter absurdity of a cordial meeting between the two ever occurring, some informed speculation and mythologizing of the event seems oddly appropriate.

With that in mind, Elvis & Nixon takes its signature event and has fun with it… but not ridiculous fun, and that’s a pleasant surprise.  The absurdities of the event and the personalities involved are acknowledged and certainly played with, but never does one get the sense that things are being taken any further over the top than real life.  That’s no mean feat given that we’re looking at the giant sunglasses and belt buckles version of Elvis Presley, whom the film treats with an unexpected tenderness, presenting him as a man who knows that he’s become a myth and can’t stop his own increasingly ridiculous tide, and who values friendship – true friendship – as a rare and precious thing that he can only see in the eyes of a few.  Just as impressive is humanizing of Richard Nixon; hardly one of America’s most sympathetic figures, but none the less shown here as something other than the true myth of “Tricky Dick.”  Indeed, in finding common ground that could have fostered genuine warmth between Nixon and Elvis, the script ends up portraying Nixon as a more tightly wound, political riff on the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and for the space of an hour and half, I can buy it.

One of the main reasons I can buy it is because of the outstanding performances of Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.  Neither one particularly resembles the man he’s playing physically, but they’ve got the postures and mannerisms down well enough for disbelief to be suspended, and from there, the audience can just sit back and watch the talent show.  (The fact that director Liza Johnson and her team choose not to expend effort on heavy makeup for the actors and just let them have at it is but one of many brilliant decisions made behind the camera.)  Of particular note is a soliloquy scene just before the momentous meeting wherein Shannon’s Elvis talks to a mirror about his stillborn twin brother that will no doubt be part of his highlight reel for the rest of his life.  It’s much deeper and more powerful stuff than I would have expected from Elvis & Nixon going in, and the scenes in which he talks about friendship are similarly moving.   I’d be shocked if he’s awarded any hardware for his efforts, but he does deserve some honest consideration.  As for Kevin Spacey… come on.  He’s Kevin Spacey.  The man’s whole career is a highlight reel.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other major surprise I found when watching Elvis & Nixon… or rather, when hearing it.  Despite being a movie about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, there is not a single Elvis tune played during the entire film, which instead gets its pop sounds from the likes of Sam & Dave and Credence Clearwater Revival.  It’s not at all what I would have expected, but it works, setting a stage for the time of the event while allowing the character of Elvis more space to stand out as Elvis the man rather than as Elvis the legend.

Interesting trick for a movie which is itself an informed myth. 

When Elvis & Nixon is over, will you know the true history of the day that Elvis Presley met Richard Nixon?  No, you won’t; the only two people who knew everything for certain are long dead.  But you’ll get the flavor of it, and perhaps a better appreciation for the men involved who wore their legends as plainly as their clothes.

Now that’s a worthwhile myth.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2016

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


- copyright 2000-2016, Ziggy Berkeley and Cinema on the Rocks, all rights reserved.

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