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Elvis & Nixon

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 22, 2016
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star in 'Elvis & Nixon'
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star in 'Elvis & Nixon'  

If the idea of making a movie based on the meeting between then-President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley on Dec. 21, 1970, strikes you as falling between rich cinematic potential in the vein of satires like "Wag the Dog" (1997) and historic pop fluff like "My Week with Marilyn" (2011), then factor this into your thinking: The film was made in 1997 by director Allan Arkush, under the title "Elvis Meets Nixon." Now it's been made again, as "Elvis & Nixon,", by director Liza Johnson.

The meeting took place before Nixon installed tape recorders in the White House, so the filmmakers in both instances have been able to take plenty of creative license. If the Arkush film plays tot he situation's comic potential, Johnson's take assumes that the tale to be told is a comedy, but looks for spots in which to give the material some dramatically hefty fleshing out.

Elvis is troubled by what he fears is a communist-manipulated slide toward anarchy. The young of the day are mesmerized by drugs and television -- and, yes, rock and roll. (Elvis is willing to throw the Beatles under the bus here.) Though it's only glancingly touched upon here -- the Arkush film makes more of it -- Elvis is also irritated by his family and his manager hassling him about how he spends his money, and how much of it he's blown. Whether out of a need to let the controlling impulse trickle down, or in a bid to gain a sense of order in his own life, Elvis decides that America needs his services. In order to save his country from drugs and communism, Elvis decides to see if he can't secure a position as a "Federal Agent at Large."

Lots goes into such a proposition. One must board a flight to Los Angeles in order to recruit a longtime friend -- specifically, Jerry Schilling (later to become manager to Billy Joel, and played here by Alex Pettyfer, who can't quite keep his English accent at bay), then jet off to Washington, D.C. to cold call the White House (leading to awkward exchanges with security guards), mope around a luxury hotel with Jerry and an additional minder called Sonny (Johnny Knoxville, in fine form), buttonhole Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Deputy Director John Finlator (a bemused and amusing Tracy Letts), and slip away from one's handler long enough to go out for doughnuts in a sketchy neighborhood. Of course, it helps when one is Elvis Presley, though it might not be quite as advantageous to one's cause when the actor playing Presley is Michael Shannon -- a gifted performer, and one with unexpected comic chops, but the wrong casting for the role. Not for a minute did I buy it.

However, the comic coin has two sides. At the White House, Nixon aides Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) sense opportunity to tune in and connect with America's youth when they learn of Elvis' visit and see the scrawled letter he's written to Nixon, making the case for his instatement as a special government agent. The request is nuts, of course, but the two get so excited they set about persuading H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan in another delectable cameo). So energetic are these proceedings that you forget for minutes on end that Nixon is played by Kevin Spacey -- another poor casting choice. Four seasons of political villainy on "House of Cards" have not prepared Spacey for the job, and his broad, hunchbacked portrayal of Nixon is stuck in parody. One longs for the menace and cool intelligence of Anthony Hopkins in the role (Oliver Stone's "Nixon," 1995) or John Cusack's booze-fueled melancholy ("Lee Daniels' The Butler," 2013); what Spacey delivers falls just short of Vaudeville, even when Nixon reveals the very key that Elvis instinctively knows to grasp and twist in order to get his wish (insecurity about his personal appearance).

For all these failings, comedy remains the film's oeuvre and it is a pretty funny film. The King, with his scrappy retinue, finally meets the president, with his unctuous, careerist sidekicks. The exchange is worth the wait.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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