You’ve seen the pictures. The whole world has seen the pictures. And “the pictures” remain to this day the most requested images in the National Archives. What pictures, you may ask? Those taken on December 21, 1970, by White House photographer Ollie Atkins; when Elvis Presley met President Richard Nixon. Now, thanks to director Liza Johnson and screenwriters Hanala Sagal, Joey Sagal and Cary Elwes, culling from personal notes, recollections and interviews of the few individuals present for this historic meeting, we have “Elvis & Nixon” – a fun-filled, fact based, inspired, somewhat satiric, “fly on the wall”, what-if, telling of the behind closed doors conversation between the leader of the free world and the king of rock ‘n roll. Starring Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, with a scene-stealing performance by Colin Hanks as Nixon advisor Bud Krogh, “Elvis & Nixon” is not only entertaining, but even a bit insightful into the private men behind the public personas.
We pick up the story in Los Angeles, a few days after Christmas in 1970. (As history and personal accounts of those present at the time tell us, Elvis was sulking and alone after being chastised by his father and then-wife Priscilla for his outlandish spending on Christmas presents for family, friends and his Memphis Mafia – more than $100,000 on 32 handguns and 10 Mercedes Benz.) Watching television, Elvis is outraged at what he sees on the news and the disrespect the public has for law enforcement. He shoots the tv. But, he gets inspired.
Hopping on a plane to Washington, D.C. – the process itself providing more than enough comedic fodder – Elvis writes a letter to President Nixon during the flight. His plan? Drive up to the White House and personally deliver the four-page handwritten letter, closing it with a request to meet Nixon. . .and a request for a badge making him a special undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (As Priscilla Presley later wrote in her memoir, the badge represented a type of “ultimate power” and “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”) Joining Elvis in Washington are his longtime confidante Jerry Schilling and “Memphis Mafia”aide Sonny West.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Elvis does indeed drive up to the White House gate in a limo and personally delivers his letter to two dumbfounded guards. As the guards explain the difficulty in getting a letter to the President, Elvis turns on his charms, as if pulling a Jedi mind trick, willing them into compliance. Apparently The Force was with Elvis long before we ever heard of Yoda, Han, Luke and Leia because the next thing you know, Elvis’ letter is in the hands of Dwight Chapin and Bud Krogh, who see this as an opportunity for Nixon to connect with the public and the young people of America.
Staying at the Washington Hotel for a few days awaiting the call he knew would come, Elvis pulls out all stops for his meeting with Nixon. Taking more time and care than a girl readying for her senior prom, from hair grooming to attire to armament, Elvis leaves no stone unturned in his preparation to meet Nixon. The entire sequence is an interesting side look into Elvis the man as we get the sense he truly viewed his walking out a door into the public as a soldier going into battle. Kudos to director Johnson for this insightful tacit commentary.
The real fun though, begins with Elvis’ arrival at the West Wing. From turning in all of his firearms (well, almost all) to an hilarious and meticulously edited back-and-forth as Dwight preps Jerry and Sonny on what Elvis can and cannot do in the Oval Office and Bud preps Nixon on Elvis’ idiosyncracies, things really become delightfully surreal once Elvis and Nixon actually meet. Given the audience has heard all the do’s and don’ts, it’s almost a game of cat-and-mouse to guess what “don’t” each man will violate and what messages are being sent, particularly when it comes to Nixon’s M&M’s and Dr. Pepper. And yes, we see Nixon reduced to dad of fangirl when he asks for Elvis’ autograph for daughter Julie.
But interspersed amidst the physical and visual comedy is the dialogue. Timely and topical for the day, we can only imagine that some of this was indeed part of the conversation – even beyond the notes that Krogh took during the meeting – much of which now appears as being prescient foreshadowing for the world we know today and how history played out for each man post December 1970. Through it all, we laugh at the one-upmanship of each, but beyond that, we see the hilarity ensuing with Bud and Dwight, and Jerry and Sonny, as the best laid plans of aides and protocol go awry.
When it comes to performances, we’ve got to start with Colin Hanks who steals the show as Bud Krogh. He is laugh-out-loud funny! Giving Krogh a “racing” walk that harkens back to that of Frank Langella racing through the White House in “Dave”, Hanks embodies Krogh’s perfect frustrated angst! Then Hanks adds giddy glee as Bud meets Elvis, stepping out of the Oval Office, squealing like a teen-aged school girl. But it’s his facial expressions that scream laughter and leave you wanting more. The comic timing never falters. Right in tandem with Hanks is Evan Peters as the slightly dim-witted Dwight Chapin. Playing second fiddle to Hanks, but creating his own comedic vibe, Chapin fuels his own funny with facial nuance. Were the film not focused on “Elvis & Nixon”, these two could have had much expanded roles as they not only feed the funny off each other, but provide reactive facial expressiveness to others that is unforgettable and telling in its own right.
A real surprise is Alex Pettyfer as Jerry Schilling, delivering not only a quieter, more subdued performance than anything we have seen from him in the past, but one that is genuine. Have to wonder how much of a factor having the real Schilling as Executive Producer and at his disposal played into Pettyfer’s performance. A very human take. And thanks to Pettyfer’s truth in the character, it allows Michael Shannon to show a more private side of Elvis that we have only heard about but never seen or experienced. Rounding out the Elvis camp is Johnny Knoxville who, with minimal screen time, still manages to add some flair as Sonny West.
And what of Michael Shannon? Granted, he doesn’t look like Elvis but he imbues an authenticity thanks to some well placed signature tics and moves (and some great physicality with walk, stance and movement of hands – a lot of people never look at Elvis’ hands – very expressive with movement and Shannon brings that in) while delivering us Elvis the private man. There is never a note of irony in the performance. Shannon brings a welcoming sincerity that plays against the public persona of Elvis. Dead panning humor with Spacey’s Nixon, Shannon plays more or less the straight man, leaving the reaction and humor to Spacey, notably with a moon rock scene, M&Ms and Dr. Pepper, and, of course, The Beatles.
Then there’s Kevin Spacey. Always interested in interpretations of Nixon with great interest, Spacey turns in one of the best and a personal favorite. He plays it straight – as does Shannon with Elvis – and doesn’t try to make his interpretation a parody. The voice is flawless and the inflections (including facial expressiveness and eye rolls) are fabulous. The matter-of-fact nature Spacey has with dialogue delivery is charming in that we have heard enough of Nixon live and “on tape” that we know his disdain was never disguised in the tone of his voice or the words he spoke or the cadence of that speech. Spacey tells us more about Nixon through vocal inflection and cadence than the words on the page. When alone in the Oval Office with Hanks and Peters, the three of them have this incredible chemistry that emulates the truth of history and bodes for fun and laughter.
But it’s the interplay between Shannon and Spacey that is the most striking as they sweep us into the moment as we watch a king humanize a president, bonding over M&M’s, Dr. Pepper and a dislike of The Beatles. The beauty of human nature unfolds and with the meeting of two men whom many believed were diametrically opposite, only to find common ground and concerns (albeit how ludicrous Elvis’ proclaimed love of law enforcement was in real life and is on screen). In constructing the script, the Sagals and Elwes take advantage of history and how it has unfolded over the decades to infuse tongue-in-cheek prophecy that is standout when in the hands of these two master actors.
The entire premise is smart, bold and imaginative. Script is solidly constructed with backstory and detail, all interwoven through dialogue with minimal exposition. The balance and blend between actual known facts and the “what if” is beyond credible and resonant. Key to the success of blending fact and fiction is the fact that Bud Krogh is a consultant on the film. And while this Elvis-Nixon meeting occurred in the days pre-taping of conversations and phone calls, Krogh made notes; e.g., “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest.” to which Elvis replied, “I’m on your side.” Notes also dealt with Elvis’ comments that he’d been “studying the drug culture and Communist brainwashing.” All of this is worked into the film, but then given a slightly exaggerated spin. Similarly, Jerry Schilling has the inside track from the Elvis camp on what led up to the meeting. It’s difficult to tell where fact ends and fiction begins, which is what leads to the one small problem with the film – should we look at this as a comedy on Nixon like “Dick”or is this a serious telling of an event? The line is never clear and while there are extremely serious overtones and dialogue discussions – particularly on the part of Shannon’s Elvis – and laugh out loud funny thanks primarily to Colin Hanks or one-liners a la Spacey, or the expected giggling reactions of women fawning at Elvis – the emotions are at a disconnect lending to a description of perhaps “serio-comic” but even that feels a disingenuous description. Like the men themselves, it is impossible to pigeonhole “Elvis & Nixon” into a genre description.
Director Liza Johnson plays to her own strengths, and that of her actors, taking the performances seriously and allowing the humor of the situation to play out. She knows comedic timing and never misses a beat be it with camera angle or editing. She embraces the larger-than-life persona of each character, but more importantly, the broad view of this moment in time and the secretive behind-closed-doors event which affords her a visual freedom that is captured and celebrated by cinematographer Terry Stacey.
Stacey is a godsend for first-time directors, be it with Bob Nelson and “The Confirmation” or Clark Gregg with “Trust Me”, while knowing how to visually conceptualize a comedic visual edge as he did in Michael Dowse’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” With “Elvis & Nixon”, Stacey’s visuals are killer. The camera is judiciously used for moments of power between Elvis and Nixon, creating its own subtext of who’s in control – aided, of course, by the fabulous pre-meeting instructions sessions of protocol. That back and forth editing compounded by Stacey’s camera angles of the two men acting out what their aides are setting forth as ground rules, is beyond funny. Even with the Elvis at the security booth scene, guards are lensed not only standing up on the concrete platform of the guard shack, but with the camera dutched upwards, putting them in the position of power. Reverse shot of Shannon’s Elvis is not only dutched downward from the guards’ eye level, but as we see on the viewing of the security tape, from a third angle of the overhead angled surveillance cam. Details. Details. Details. Lighting is king in “Elvis & Nixon” and Stacey doesn’t disappoint, creating a beautiful bright white openness in the Oval Office, contrasted with the golden hued opulence of the West Wing entry way. Countering the White House are the lower ceilings in both the hotel room and Graceland tv room where the camera is also much tighter, creating both an intimacy and sense of claustrophobia that comes with being “The King”. It’s a beautiful design element by Stacey and Johnson, adding more depth to the Elvis the man as opposed to Elvis the King.
Rounding out the technical polish of the film, while Mara Loop’s production design is notable, more impressive is Kristen Lekki’s art direction and use of color. Most striking is the white on white visuals of the light and the walls in the Oval Office, punctuated with pops of color that are so “America”, while there are no words beyond WOW to describe the Elvis’ hotel room entry foyer.
Icing on the cake is the soundtrack with tunes like Blood, Sweat & Tears “Spinning Wheel”, “Susie Q” by CCR, Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and more.
A huge “thank you, thank you very much” goes out to Liza Johnson and an amazing cast for “Elvis & Nixon”. Beyond entertaining and enjoyable, they demonstrate imagination and creativity thinking outside of the photograph frame.
Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Hanala Sagal, Joey Sagal and Cary Elwes
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Colin Hanks, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Evan Peters