Who Set This Up, Indeed: 'Elvis And Nixon' Tells A Summit's Story

Apr 21, 2016

By 1970, some people worried that the United States had gone seriously off track. Two great American leaders were sure of it, and so a summit was arranged. Problem is, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon didn't really agree on what needed to be done — or even what the problem was.

Lightly fictionalizing the singer's December 21, 1970 meeting with the pre-Watergate president, Elvis & Nixon spends most of its time with Presley, who may actually be the more inscrutable of the two. He impulsively decides he needs to become an undercover narcotics agent, an epiphany he commemorates by — what else? — shooting out the screen of a TV. Its offense? Showing him the face of Timothy Leary, guru of the psychedelic age that had eclipsed good old rock'n'roll.

As for Nixon, he's skeptical. His first words in the movie are, "Who the [expletive deleted] set this up?"

Elvis & Nixon depicts an once-improbable cultural confluence — show-biz meets politics — that's now routine. Perhaps unintentionally, it illustrates the gap with two very different acting styles. Guess which one is hammier.

That would be Kevin Spacey, playing Nixon with an emphasis on hand flapping, shoulder hunching, and ursine throat clearing. As Presley, Michael Shannon is more naturalistic. Neither actor attempts a physical impersonation — impossible for Shannon in this case — and each blazes his own distinct path into his character's well-known public persona.

Both Nixon and Presley were boys in bubbles, of course. Before heading to Washington, Elvis flies to L.A. to enlist a sidekick-in-exile, Jerry (Alex Pettyfer), and then calls in another pal/retainer, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville). At the White House, Nixon is both protected and prodded by Egil "Bud" Krogh (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), and H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan). First daughter Julie also plays a role in encouraging the conclave, but off-camera.

Because he's the president, and because he's Nixon, Nixon expects everything to be managed and predictable. Because he's The King, Presley expects to do whatever he wants. He shows up at the White House with a letter, half-expecting to be invited right in. Later, when he does gain admittance, Presley arrives with a vintage Colt pistol — a gift, he explains to the Secret Service — and trashes every point of protocol specified in Krogh's anxious pre-meeting briefing.

Shot principally in Louisiana on a modest budget, Elvis & Nixon doesn't attempt to reconstruct the story's actual milieu. (There's also, unsurprisingly, no Elvis music.) Washington and LAX in 1970 are suggested with brief archival clips, and most of the scenes set outside the Oval Office or Presley's hotel suite are unconvincing. The movie would be better without the singer's visit to a D.C. donut shop and his airport encounter with an Elvis impersonator.

But the film is only 87 minutes long, so director Liza Johnson could hardly snip the filler from Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes' script. Besides, every entertainer knows that you can't go straight to the big number. Think of Elvis & Nixon's sometimes clumsy prologue as its opening act, building anticipation for the showdown between its title characters, and Spacey and Shannon.

It's a halfway-meeting of the minds, but also — as Elvis gobbles the forbidden presidential M&Ms — a delicious little power struggle.

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