Reportedly the most requested photo in the National Archive is the one taken in December 1970 when The King, Elvis Presley, met The President, Richard Nixon, in the White House Oval Office. This secret meeting took place several months before Nixon installed a recording device — the same one that would take down his presidency after the Watergate scandal in 1974 — so there is no audio record of what was said between the two. But now a new movie tries to fill in the blanks using historical facts and making a good guess at what really went on.
Elvis & Nixon focuses on Presley’s obsessive quest to get a Federal Bureau of Narcotics badge and become what he termed “a federal agent at large.” It seems he was upset and concerned about the growing drug and hippie culture and wanted to go undercover to infiltrate these groups. So, with trusted friends and confidantes Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) in tow, Elvis (Michael Shannon) shows up at the White House security gate with a letter he wants personally delivered to Nixon (Kevin Spacey). It ends up in the hands of Nixon aides Egil Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) who, despite obstacles, actually manage to get Nixon to agree to the meeting.
The film, directed by Liza Johnson and written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, then surmises what really went down between the two as Presley offers his services for the good of the country and even says he will supply his own guns (one of which he even managed to sneak into the Oval Office with him). With a droll and understated wit, Elvis & Nixon manages to stay amusing for all of its brisk 86-minute running time thanks to the dead-on performances of Spacey and Shannon, who seem to be having a ball playing these iconic figures. And blissfully, they play them straight, which makes what on its surface is rather incredible seem totally believable and plausible.
Hunched over, and with just enough of Nixon’s hairstyle to suggest he is the real thing, Spacey nails it and makes us completely forget another resident of that world named Frank Underwood. Shannon, of course, can do no wrong and manages to overcome the fact that Presley is perhaps the most impersonated showbiz figure ever without resorting to doing an impersonation. He just inhabits the guy. The supporting cast is also right on the money, with even Knoxville toning it down and delivering by actually underplaying it for a change.
So how much of this really happened? Who knows, but Johnson never lets on she doesn’t believe a minute of it, and that’s what makes it fun. Production values, and the re-creation of the White House, are top-notch considering the low budget for the film, which is produced by Cassian Elwes and Holly Wiersma.
The film had its world premiere last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Amazon Studios production will be released Friday though Bleecker Street. Do you plan to see it? Let us know what you think.