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Tribeca Spotlight: “Elvis & Nixon”: A Meeting of Movie Minds

By Laura Blum

Elvis & Nixon recalls Elvis Presley’s 1970 rendezvous with President Richard Nixon at the White House. If, like me, you’ve never read Jerry Schilling’s first-person account in Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, your next best bet is to go with the movie. Come to think of it, Liza Johnson’s take is kicky enough on its own merits, you can forget any comparison at all.

Already from the opening sequence, the film draws you in with sound and sight of Nixon’s audio recording about the unlikely meeting. Wait a few beats and there’s Kevin Spacey as the titular president demanding to know who the (expletive) set it up. The way his aides Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) squirm suggests just what they’re up against with this brazen bid to impose on the boss’s nap hour.

A psychedelic title sequence set to Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” blazes images of the Vietnam War and countercultural explosions back home. In a few rousing moments you get the zeitgeist of the era along with the film’s encouragement to have fun.

So it’s off to Graceland, done up in mod grey, white and the same imperial yellow as the Oval Office curtains. The King of Rock ‘n Roll is on a secret mission and his boyhood pal Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) is the only one he can trust to help him. Schilling is working as a film editor at Paramount when the call comes in from his former “Memphis Mafia” boss. “We’re at a crossroads. It’s make-or-break time,” intones the King. Sounding very much like the oracle he believes he is, he laments that drugs are “messing with kids’ minds.” You can’t help but relish the irony that the alcohol and prescription opiate addict, the voice behind “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” the gyrating subversive whom CBS cameramen could only shoot from the waist up — that this man now covets a federal narcotics badge to make undercover busts.

But it’s with all apparent sincerity that Elvis sweats John Lennon, Vladimir Lenin and their effect on America’s youth. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t offer to help?” Elvis puts to his closest friend. Schilling initially resists Elvis’s appeals — he has his own responsibilities to tend to — until temptation gets the better of him and he caves.

Schilling also has an executive producer credit on the film, which may explain why his character is guardedly given his own emotional arc. But then each of the main dramatis personae in Joey and Hanala Sagal’s script gets to express inner pangs and desires. In Schilling’s case, that includes a subplot to show his girlfriend he’s there for her and not married to Elvis’s career. It occasions what might seem a throwaway moment of commiserating with overworked Kogh, but which typifies the filmmakers’ attention to sidekicks.

For his part, Elvis has a stirring confessional scene with — who else? — himself. With moments to go before his big meeting with the father-figure President, he remembers his daddy’s early abandonment. Perhaps it suggests an emotional answer to a key question underlying the film: Why did this man—the world’s most popular entertainment at the time—need a badge? An earlier exchange with Schilling exposes gnawing issues of loneliness at the pinnacle of world fame. “I’ve become a thing, an object, no different than a bottle of Coke,” Elvis says of the submergence of his identity under stage makeup and screaming fans. You can’t help but feel for the guy when he reflects on the person behind the image, “I don’t even know if I know him anymore.”

Such flickers of emotion lend shading to Elvis & Nixon and make its balancing act with comedy all the more workable. Yet for a spell there it draws perilously close to exhausting the hilarity of the this-is-really-Elvis setup. How many times can you delight in his being taken as a Elvis impersonator or in the spectacle of him doing prosaic stuff like any ordinary schmo? Fortunately the milking stops around his visit to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and a more satisfying humor flows.

The trick here is to weave the poignant with the preposterous and keep the pace moving. Though most of the film is taken with the build-up to the climactic encounter, the process itself is a gas. Editors Sabine Hoffman and Michael Taylor never chintz on motives, nor do they underestimate the power of juxtaposition. A number of well-placed jump cuts amp up the entertainment, especially in the buildup to Nixon finally buckling — as it happens, not so much to the implications for the youth vote but rather to his daughter Julie’s fondest wish.

And then, showtime! Enter Elvis and the full punch of Johnson’s off-beat buddy movie. It doesn’t hurt that the material is inherently grabby; there’s a reason the Elvis-Nixon meet up is the most requested photograph in the National Archive. But in other hands the cinematic imagining could have grown shrill. Here the two towering leaders bond like thieves. Enriched by the drama of their low-brow communion, the comedy act Shannon and Spacey put on in the Oval Office is deliciously high wire.

A priori it wasn’t a given. You can admire Michael Shannon’s work and still worry he may not be right for this part. Elvis was so pretty, you’d argue, and Shannon so craggy and rough. But when Shannon’s Elvis shows up at the Northwest Gate of the White House and does that woo-woo thing with his fingers, you’re hooked. Or maybe it was already in the black donut joint, where he showed what a cool jerk he can be. Certainly by the time he explodes his oily charm on Tricky Dick, it’s official: Elvis is in the building, and that building is Michael Shannon. Swathed in black and blinged out in a ton of gold, his caped pop star struts into the Oval Office in his San Remo boots and bam! Whenever it is that you feel the magic, you can’t help falling in love with the actor as the King.

Spacey, for his part nails the President. But you knew that from all the other powerbrokers he’s nailed. It’s worth the price of the ticket just to hear him deadpan his hard-won acquiescence, “So you think we should meet with him… during my nap hour.” Yes, Mr. President, because without that there would be no Elvis & Nixon.

Photo Credits:

1) (L - R) Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon in “Elvis & Nixon.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.