What is it about the Richard Nixon administration, one of the most corrupt in United States Presidential history, that makes it so perfect for political comedy? The Watergate scandal was the focus of the underrated and whimsical 1999 comedy, “Dick”, which constructed an absolutely wacko premise surrounding the crime. And now we have “Elvis & Nixon”, which is similarly incredulous while exploring one of the most bizarre encounters of Nixon’s time in office, in which he went toe to hilarious toe with Elvis Presley.
What could possibly bring the leader of the free world into the same orbit as the “King of Rock and Roll”? You probably won’t be surprised to learn the answers are “ego and drugs”, in that order. The central combatants in this battle of wills are intriguingly portrayed by Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as “Tricky Dick” Nixon, which should be enough to tell you this one is going to fly off the reality rails in terms of performances. Director Liza Johnson, working from a screenplay co-written by Cary Elwes, embraces the sheer audacity of the event itself, but the lead-up to it is often mired in boring minutiae.
In 1970, Elvis came up with the goofy idea that he needed to protect America and its children from the likes of hippies, Beatles fans, anybody and anything that was counterculture. So he decided he wanted to fly to DC and meet President Nixon so he could be deputized a federal agent-at-large in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The pistol-packin’ rocker had been awarded so many honorary deputy badges that he had begun to think he was the real deal, and becoming a federal agent should be no big deal. Of course, the fact that no such position actually exists wasn’t going to stop someone like “the King” from getting what he wants. While he often stops to reflect that his celebrity makes it impossible for anyone to truly know him, he’s not above using that fame to strong-arm his way into a meeting with the President.
Nixon isn’t someone used to being pushed around by anybody, and his exasperation over how the arrangement came to be is probably what a lot of people were thinking at the time. Spacey’s Nixon is a bloviating douchebag, drunk with the minor inconveniences he can enforce on others. Minutes before the meeting actually takes place, infamous White House staffer Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) lays out a litany of silly rules (Such as not drinking the Dr. Pepper sitting on the table) to be followed, which Elvis immediately breaks because who is going to tell him what to do? Meanwhile, Nixon just wants to use Elvis to look hip to the younger generation, and maybe score an autograph. Perhaps they should have named the film “Elvis vs. Nixon”?
The payoff, the chance to watch Spacey and Shannon square off in a contest for scene-chewing dominance, is well worth the hour long slog to get there. Most of that time is spent with Elvis as he laments his fame while giving in to it to please his fans, offering them a cool “Thank you very much” at the drop of a hat. The irony of Elvis is that he sees himself as a protector, while the media at the time often criticized him for being a corrupting influence on the youth. There’s also the fact that he wanted to be a drug informant when he himself was racked with personal demons, a suggestion the story teases but never dives into fully. Every note of this film, and that includes Ed Shearmur’s zippy score, tells us we shouldn’t be taking any of this too seriously. However, it’s hard to do that when we spend so much time with Elvis’ confidante Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who desperately needs to get back home in time to meet his girlfriend’s parents. Elvis wants Jerry to work for him again, and for some reason we are expected to care if that’s what he decides to do, but we’re never given any reason why we should. Jerry’s dilemma is too normal to fit into the surreal world in which this story takes place.
There’s nothing too deep here, thank goodness, and that neither Shannon nor Spacey look like their characters is a definite plus. Both Elvis and Nixon were narcissists who had become lost by the power they commanded, which made it all the more unbelievable and awesome that they found their way to one another. A meeting like that will never happen again. What’s the closest we could get today? Barack Obama and Kanye West? We’ve already had that, and it doesn’t even come close. “Elvis & Nixon” at least recognizes what an unlikely moment in time that was, and helps make sure nobody will forget that it really happened.