Elvis and Nixon

Two Recording Artists

Out of all of the photographic treasures housed at the National Archives, one stands out as the most requested picture of all time: a 1970 photograph of Elvis Presley standing with then president Richard Nixon in the White House. The photo captured the moment after a brief, informal, and impromptu meeting between the two icons.

Elvis’s yin is three times larger than Nixon’s stoic yang. That, of course, is what makes the meeting intriguing.

Four and a half decades later, that meeting plays out on the big screen in Elvis and Nixon, an entertaining, albeit shallow account of what the movie’s tagline refers to as when “two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.”

The movie opens with Presley (played by Michael Shannon) watching three TVs simultaneously at his Graceland mansion. He’s viewing footage from the Vietnam War, civil war protests, and news stories on drug usage. Upset by what he sees, he shoots the TVs with his pistol. He flies to Los Angeles to try to recruit former entourage member Jerry Schilling into helping him with one last mission. Schilling eventually gives into the loyalty of his old friend and agrees to fly with him to Washington, D.C., where Elvis plans to pop in and visit President Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Elvis wishes to offer his services in helping to heal the country, and to request to be an undercover federal agent (and be awarded a badge).

Nixon, of course, knows nothing about the meeting. People, even Elvis, just don’t show up and crash the presidential schedule, especially during Nixon’s early afternoon naptime. Nixon and his chief of staff balk at the idea of a meeting, but the president’s two young advisors encourage the meeting, thinking it will help the president’s image with the country’s younger population.

The movie’s climax is the actual meeting, where Elvis’s eccentricities juxtapose nicely with Nixon’s old-school, curmudgeonly demeanor. Elvis was a character. From the rhinestones on his outfit, his spontaneous karate moves, and his belief that he—the most recognizable man in America—could help the country as an undercover narcotics agent, Elvis’s yin is three times larger than Nixon’s stoic yang. That, of course, is what makes the meeting intriguing.

One issue with transforming a brief meeting into a feature-length film is that it can lead to filler. Our family used to have season tickets to a children’s theater, and I always cringed when I saw the announcement of plays based on short children’s books: Go, Dog, Go; Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. For five minutes, these books are entertaining. For 90 minutes? Well, that’s a stretch, and leads to unfortunate scenes, like a five-minute song about shoe shopping in Alexander.

Elvis and Nixon doesn’t suffer as much as those plays but since the actual meeting only lasts 15 minutes or so, the writers and director Liza Johnson had to bulk up the events leading up to the meeting. Much of the movie focuses on Schilling’s relationship with Elvis, which, while interesting, isn’t substantial enough to carry a movie.

Likewise, those viewers hoping to learn more about history should temper expectations. The movie is a moment-in-time portrait that entertains far more than it educates.

Despite its lack of depth, the movie succeeds in entertainment value. Spacey has always been an outstanding actor, but Shannon is the star here. While Elvis was quirky, Shannon doesn’t overplay the quirks. He’s quiet and confident playing a star who embraced his eccentricities. His karate demonstration, for example, is matter-of-fact, and not overly dramatic, as Nixon looks on in awkward bewilderment.

The peek at this one moment is an interesting stop in the journey of these two historical figures. Presley was in the middle of his successful comeback, while Nixon won re-election in 1972. Nixon eventually resigned over his role in the Watergate scandal and cover-up, while Presley died in 1977 of what was suspected to be a prescription-drug overdose. The popular picture of the duo lives on today and in many ways summarizes the movie. It’s a glossy look at an awkward and intriguing pair.

2.5/4 stars. Rated R for language, though with all of the violence in PG and PG-13 movies these days, the R seems a tad extreme.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.