By Jon Gallagher
Elvis & Nixon (Bleecker Street Media, 2016) – Director: Liza Johnson. Writers: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal & Cary Elwes (s/p). Stars: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettier, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Ahna O’Reilly, Ian Hoch, Ritchie Montgomery, & Nathalie Love. Color, Rated R, 86 minutes.
I first saw the trailer for this film in March. Elvis is one of my favorite entertainers and Nixon was one of my favorite presidents. I knew about how Elvis had just shown up at the North Gate one day to see the president back in 1970, and I knew about the iconic picture the two of them took together, the one that more people request from the National Archives than any other photo in history.
I HAD to see this movie.
That was a problem. The movie was released on April 22, but it did not make it to Peoria. The Peoria area has five theaters with 55 screens, and it wasn’t playing on a single one of them. Fortunately, the Internet was able to get the nearest location for me and that was Davenport, Iowa, just a short 75-mile trip from home (I really wanted to see this movie). I wasn’t able to schedule a trip on opening weekend, but I made arrangements for the next weekend. I called the theater to make sure of showtimes.
I’m glad I did. They had pulled the movie after the first three days and replaced it with Prince’s Purple Rain because Prince had died the day before Elvis and Nixon was released. Had I driven 75 miles and found out Elvis had been replaced by Prince, I might have been a little grouchy.
Another search of the Internet found Elvis and Nixon playing in the Chicagoland area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive, according to Mapquest. Tickets were $12. I really wanted to see this movie, but not enough to drive for five hours, spend a bunch of gas, and pay $12 a ticket (in Peoria, I rarely pay more than $5).
Not to worry. Kevin Spacey gallantly tried to drum up business by making the talk show circuit, but the limited release spelled disaster for the box office. The film couldn’t even break the $500,000 mark on opening weekend and in its three-week lifespan, barely topped $1 million in the United States. This meant that I’d have to wait a short time for the DVD release which some Internet sites had estimated at June 21.
Naturally, they were wrong. But it did come out (finally) on July 22, and is available at Amazon (for download), or at your favorite video store (if they still have those in your area).
Before watching the movie, I viewed a C-SPAN program that featured Elvis henchman Jerry Schilling and Watergate burglar Bud Krogh (four years in the clinker) interviewed for a program devoted to that day.
Can you imagine? The most popular entertainer in the world shows up at the White House without calling ahead of time, and asks to see the president! And for what reason? He wants to become an undercover drug agent and help his country battle the war on drugs.
I swear to God, I am not making this up.
If someone would have approached Hollywood with this concept for a feature film, they’ve have been laughed out of town. Not only did it happen, they managed, due to Elvis’ request (you know, since he was going to be undercover and all) that no one know about it. Somehow, they managed to keep it quiet for thirteen months!
Everything about the whole story is surreal. Nixon, famous for being somewhat of a recording artist himself, did not have the Oval Office wired for sound yet when the meeting took place in December 1970. Therefore, the only record of the meeting are the handful of photographs taken by the official White House staff. Nixon and Elvis met alone for about a half hour privately so what they talked about is all conjecture; neither spoke much of it outside of the meeting itself. What is known is that both men came away from the meeting with a better understanding of the other along with a friendship that endured until Elvis’ death.
The movie captures the entire concept, mainly from Elvis’ point of view, but occasionally from Nixon’s. Elvis went to Memphis International Airport by himself, caught a flight to Los Angeles where he hooked up with long time friend Jerry Schilling, and then the two flew to Washington, D.C., where they approached the White House guard shack, then retired to a hotel to wait for an answer from the president about the proposed meeting.
Kevin Spacey plays Nixon and does a good job, capturing his voice and inflections if not his face or mannerisms. Michael Shannon takes on the role of Elvis and although he does a wonderful job with the voice, he looks nothing like the “King of Rock n Roll.” Colin Hanks is cast as Bud Krogh and does an okay job as does everyone in the cast. I have no complaints about the acting.
The film also seems to be very accurate from a factual standpoint as well.
Admittedly, there will be a few goofs here and there with cars that are too new appearing in shots, but they did a good job on keeping everything dated correctly for the most part. I thought I heard a reference to Gerry Ford at one point (who wouldn’t become vice president till 1973), but they made a clear reference to Spiro Agnew being vice president towards the end of the movie, so I’ll give them credit on that one.
My only problem with anachronisms is one scene where Elvis is approached in an airport by an Elvis impersonator. Although it’s a cute scene (predictable in that the impersonator is telling the real Elvis what he’s doing wrong), it never happened. Elvis impersonators didn’t start crawling out from under the woodwork until after Elvis died in 1977, and they certainly didn’t exist in 1970.
Speaking of impersonators, the only thing I really don’t understand with this film is why they didn’t get someone to play Elvis who at least looked like him. Shannon does a good job with the voice, but his face just doesn’t do it. He didn’t have Elvis’ eyes, and he certainly didn’t have Elvis’ trademark smile. You gotta have the smile!
I was entertained by the movie and give it a solid B. However, and this is important, I am an Elvis fan and I’m a Nixon fan. Unless you have more than a passing interest in either, you’re going to be bored out of your skull. I know this because my oldest daughter watched it with me and her eyes had glazed over within the first 10 minutes. She didn’t just keep looking at the clock during the movie; she was counting down the minutes. She tried to find nice things to say about it so that I wouldn’t be insulted, but finally admitted that she hadn’t enjoyed it.
I should also mention that not a single Elvis song, not a single one, was used in the soundtrack. I found it interesting that they did use someone else’s version of "Peace in the Valley," Elvis’ only gospel hit.
If you’re a history buff, you may enjoy this one. Otherwise, don’t bother. Those of us who like this genre will just have to watch it alone.