Directed by Liza Johnson. Starring Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, Johnny Knoxville.

THE PLOT: On December 21st, 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) arrived at the White House, asking for a meeting with then President, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Elvis had a plan to become an undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, but getting a meeting with the leader of the free world is not easy… Even for The King.

THE VERDICT: ‘Elvis and Nixon’ is inspired by a true story, a story which led to a photo of the two together, a photo which is now one of the most requested in the history of the National Archive. There are certain things known about this meeting – such as the reason for Elvis seeking an audience with the President – but since this was several months before Nixon famously started recording every conversation in the Oval Office, much of this encounter remains a mystery.

The leading cast are strong in their roles; Kevin Spacey obviously revels playing Richard Nixon, and although his early scenes in the film feel a little overdone, Spacey soon settles into the role, making Nixon feel real without being a caricature of one of the most notorious Presidents in US history. Michael Shannon is an odd choice for Elvis Presley, but one that works in the context of this odd film. Shannon looks nothing like the King of Rock n Roll – even with the hair, the jewellery and the costumes – but there is something about his performance that captures Elvis’ way of speaking and his energy. Shannon makes Elvis almost wilfully ignorant of the reasons why he struggles to get the meeting with Nixon, but there are moments where the character opens up and not only makes this Elvis feel real, but makes him relatable, showing the person beneath the persona. Spacey and Shannon obviously had a great time working on the film, and the scenes in which they appear together are not only hilarious, but belie the oddness of the meeting as a concept. The rest of the cast features Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville as friends of Elvis, and Colin Hanks and Evan Peters as White House staff.

The screenplay, written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes plays up the surreal notion of the King of Rock n Roll wanting to meet the President of the US, while making the characters rounded and real, but without going into too much political or personal history. Much of the film is taken up with the entourages of ‘Elvis and Nixon’ trying to find a way to make the meeting happen, but there is enough wit and side story to keep the audience engaged. Of course when the two finally do get into a room together, everything is ramped up; the comedy, the personal tales and the quirky oddness of the entire situation.

As director, Liza Johnson struggles with the pacing of the film from time to time, with more time being spent trying to keep tabs on Elvis than examining just why Elvis wanted the meeting in the first place. That said, trying to stretch the story of this strange meeting out to fill 90 minutes was always going to be troublesome. That said, most of the performances are strong and even though Shannon doesn’t quite play an Elvis that we recognise, it is a version of Elvis in terms of the film and, it works, especially taking into account Elvis’ meeting with an impersonator early on in the film.

In all, ‘Elvis and Nixon’ is as odd and strange as you could hope it to be. Spacey and Shannon don’t make their characters caricatures, more slightly different versions of these famous men than the ones we know. The pacing struggles from time to time, but the film is redeemed by the energy between the two leads once they finally get into a room together. A stronger story and examination of just what Elvis was thinking could have made for a stronger film, but as it stands, ‘Elvis and Nixon’ is and odd, quirky and hilarious film that is not without it’s faults.

RATING: 3.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    In what must be a curious statement about Americans, the most requested photo from their National Archives is the face-to-face meeting of their then most powerful man, Richard Nixon and their most popular man, Elvis Presley. A picture paints a thousand words, but is that enough to sustain a whole film?

    December 1970. Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), not content with being ridiculously popular and an icon to a generation, becomes concerned with the turmoil in American society – the devastating impact of drugs, the rise of the Black Panthers and other social concerns. He decides that he wants to be made a Federal Agent-at-large, to go undercover in disguise to see what’s really going on in America and to help it. Approaching the White House, he writes a letter to President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) outlining his concerns and asks for a meeting. The President’s staff, Chapin (Evan Peters) and Krogh (Colin Hanks) can scarcely believe what’s happening, but view it as a way to reach out to the discontented youth of America. Nixon resists the idea, dismissing it as frivolous. But then some maneuvering from Elvis’ producing partner and friend Jeremy (Alex Pettyfer) finally gets The King to meet the President in the Oval Office…

    Despite famously recording his Oval Office meetings, Nixon neglected to turn his tape recorder on for his encounter with Elvis. So, Liza Johnson’s film is just speculative about this meeting of two very different men. As a result, the film has to fill in the blanks about what was said. After a long build-up period, the actual meeting is mildly interesting, but hardly earth-shattering. The idea of Elvis being appointed as an honourary DEA agent is a curious one. Overall though, the photo itself is a very thin idea on which to peg a feature-length film on. Coming in at a slim 86 minutes, it feels like an overstretched Saturday Night Live skit. A History Channel special would have been more appropriate.

    Adding to the SNL tone is the casting. Spacey, no stranger to SNL and doing spot-on impressions, gurns his way through a pantomime performance as Tricky Dicky. Where’s Frank Underwood when you need him? Even stranger is the casting of Shannon. Looking and sounding nothing like Elvis, he comes across as the least-convincing Elvis for some time – less hip-shaking icon and more waxwork sculpture. Neither performance really works, leaving the supporting cast, which also includes Johnny Knoxville, to do most of the heavy lifting until the actual meeting. There’s some diverting humour to be had in the actual encounter, as Elvis ignores requests not to touch the President’s snacks or gives the man a big bear hug.

    Elvis & Nixon tries hard to please, with the emphasis more on humour and surprise than anything meaningful. It’s bright, breezy and short, but its impact is that of a dart hitting the wall rather than the board. There’s barely enough material here to make a film out of, so regretfully it can’t come recommended. **

    • Clive Bower

      Another disappointing film with a strong cast . Such a shame , the film while amusing failed to pull me in .

  • dainiux79

    As an extended sketch about the meeting of two remarkable figures, Elvis
    & Nixon manages to capture why the public retain such curiosity for
    these influential, eccentric men.

  • emerb

    “Elvis & Nixon” was inspired by a single 1970 photograph of Elvis Presley, the King, and Richard Nixon, the President, shaking hands in the Oval office. While some of the facts are known, the brief meeting was shrouded in secrecy and never recorded so the details of the conversations and motivations are conjectural and, in fact, have been the subject of much humour and speculation over the years. Directed by Liza Johnson, this film is a thoroughly charming comedy giving us an amusing look at the one of the most bizarre meetings in history – that of two iconic figures who could not have been more different. When, in the winter of 1970, Presley delivered a letter to the White House asking
    to meet with Nixon and be appointed a “federal agent at large” in the war on drugs, it must have seemed like a joke and this film comically images what may have happened in the lead up to and during that famous meeting.

    The movie is set back in 1970, the era of Vietnam, hippies, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll, campus protests and the emergence of marijuana and LSD. The bulk of the movie is spent on the build up to “that” meeting. It starts with Elvis (Michael Shannon) taking the absurd decision to fly to Washington, with his sidekick Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to fulfill his dream of becoming a “Federal Agent-at-Large.” The two men show up uninvited at the White House gate, much to the incredulity of the guards, and when denied immediate entrance Elvis leaves a handwritten note for the president in which he voices his concern over the drug problem in America and requests a meeting with the president so he can volunteer his services as an undercover agent in the Bureau of Narcotics. His theory is that he can speak to the young and disillusioned as no one else can
    and he sees himself as Nixon’s natural ally. The letter is passed from Nixon’s aides Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Even Peters), to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) who returns their memo recommending the meeting with one comment – “You must be kidding!” However, Nixon (Kevin Spacey) is reluctantly forced to agree to a short meeting, albeit with the proviso that he can get Presley’s autograph for his daughter, Julie. Elvis arrives at the White House with multiple concealed guns, and proceeds to ignore every last bit of protocol. The whole scenario is hilarious and when he is finally ushered into the Oval Office, he even stops Nixon in his tracks. Once it’s just
    the two of them in the room, it’s really great with Elvis helping himself to the president’s personal M&Ms and Dr. Pepper, and Nixon soon finding himself strangely bonding with the rock ‘n roll superstar.

    “Elvis & Nixon” is a very entertaining but what stood out for me was the two excellent, if slightly offbeat lead performances. Both actors (Shannon and Spacey) make their roles believable. Shannon doesn’t look nor sound particularly like Elvis and doesn’t deliver an Elvis impersonation but he is hilarious with his take on the King, complete with heavily sprayed hair, enormous sideburns, gold-rimmed glasses, unbuttoned shirt, gold necklace and velvet bellbottoms. His Elvis is arrogant, oblivious and a bit naïve but still you warm to his vulnerability and oddness and he provides us with many memorable moments with a superbly deadpan performance. Kevin Spacey is well used to playing a President and he doesn’t disappoint here, even managing to make this much maligned historical figure somewhat sympathetic. In fact, it is the pair’s strange chemistry which forms the centre of the movie. Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville as Elvis’ accompanying friends, and playwright Tracy Letts as a government functionary, are also top notch in subordinate roles. Colin Hanks and Evan Peters give amusing turns as Egil “Bud” Krogh and Dwight Chapin, respectively, two White House aides tasked with convincing the president he should actually meet with Elvis because it would be good for Nixon’s image with the young and with women. The movie is short (just under an hour and a half) so it has very few slow moments and it manages to squeeze in numerous priceless set-ups, including Presley’s run-in with some Elvis impersonators at the airport
    who assume he’s one of them or his meeting with a Drug Enforcement Administration official (Tracy Letts) who can barely contain his mockery of the request of a badge. I enjoyed this film and it is a reminder that there may be
    so many untold stories of interest out there that we know nothing about
    because they took place out of the eye of the public.