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Non-Review Review: Elvis and Nixon

Elvis and Nixon is a larger than life account of a larger than life meeting between two unlikely legendary figures.

Much has been made of the fact that neither Kevin Spacey nor Michael Shannon bear much resemblance to Richard Milhous Nixon or Elvis Aaron Presley. In fact, the film even makes a point of mentioning it. After a weird encounter at the White House gate, one security guard concedes of Elvis, “He’s taller than I thought.” Of course he is; Michael Shannon is noticeably (about ten centimetres) taller than his character. Indeed, the lack of physical resemblance between the actors and the subjects seems to be the point.

"Yeah, I suppose he KINDA looks like he from an angle."

“Yeah, I suppose he KINDA looks like he from an angle.”

After all, many of the best cinematic Nixons look rather unlike the nation’s thirty-seventh president. Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella picked up Oscar nominations despite the fact that there was no risk of confusion. The same is true of Dan Hedaya, even if he never picked up an Oscar nomination. Both Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley exist as larger-than-life figures in the American popular consciousness more than distinct individuals; both are recognisable archetypes who seem to speak to the nation’s cultural memory more than its specific history.

Elvis and Nixon realises and embraces this. The film is gleefully and archly ahistorical, to the point that this becomes the point. It is not so much that the line between reality and fiction blurs for director Liza Johnson, it’s that the boundary never existed in the first place. There is no record of what actually happened during the thirty minute conversation, but that’s probably for the best. Nothing could be quite as fun as the mismatched odd couple comedy of Elvis and Nixon.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

Elvis and Nixon revels in its lack of historical accuracy, drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that there is no material record of what actually occurred beyond the notes prepared by “Bud” Krogh for President Nixon. The opening text informs audience members that the meeting occurred before Nixon installed the tape recorders in the Oval Office, meaning that the meeting exists as yet another gap in the documentation of the Nixon era. Although the meeting with Elvis is far from the most important gap in the history of the Nixon White House, it is a fascinating one.

The film struggles a bit with tone in its first half. The movie never seems entirely sure how it is pitching itself, how much humanity it wants to invest in its central protagonists. More than that, there is a repeated focus on Elvis’ handler and friend Jerry Schilling. Schilling takes focus because of the misguided notion that Elvis and Nixon needs a “relatable” character who exists in contrast to the heightened madness around him, a young man who desperately needs to get out of this circus and back to the “real” world of meeting his girlfriend’s parents and living his life.

"You know, this was mostly shot during lunch breaks on the House of Cards set."

“You know, this was mostly shot during lunch breaks on the House of Cards set.”

The problem is that these elements are by far the least exciting aspects of Elvis and Nixon. The film repeatedly suggests that Schilling is caught between his desire for a normal life and the insanity of being Elvis’ best friend. However, that seems a rather dull conflict. Schilling might be relatable, but he is also somewhat mundane. Schilling is never the most interesting character on screen at a given moment, and the first half’s focus on his personal problems distracts attention away from the more enjoyable elements of the film.

Indeed, this is born out by the fact that the most fun aspects of the first half unfold in the Nixon White House with his staff rather than in the entourage around Elvis. The Nixon White House is legendary for its dysfunction, to the point that Nixon himself is surrounded by heightened and absurd figures. As the closing text reminds us, the two functionaries pushing most strongly for the meeting would go on to much greater infamy. As Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin, Colin Hanks and Evan Peters are much more than the blandness of Alex Pettyfer as Jerry Schilling.

"And then I punched him. Pow! Right in the Kissinger..."

“And then I punched him. Pow! Right in the Kissinger…”

However, the first half has enough energy to carry it through. Michael Shannon remains one of the most compelling performers of his generation, and pitches his portrayal of Elvis much better than the first half of the film around him. Shannon plays Elvis as a manchild buried beneath a legend, a kid who never had to grow up and never had to understand the meaning of the word “no.” There is something equally ridiculous and tragic about Shannon’s interpretation of Elvis, powerful and desperate in equal measure, aware of his influence yet strangely impotent.

One of the shrewder recurring motifs of Elvis and Nixon is the sense that its two lead characters are essentially children. This is reflected in the way that both men are essentially babysat by the people around them, who seem to direct and guide them more than they drive themselves; manipulation is very much the name of the game. Elvis describes himself as still “the boy from Tennessee”, while Nixon protests the interruption of his “nap time.” The film draws repeated attention to the age of its central characters, while stressing their lack of maturity.

Come fly with me... Oh, wait. Wrong reference.

Come fly with me…
Oh, wait. Wrong reference.

After all, the entire plot of the film hinges on Elvis’ monomaniacal fixation on securing a federal badge and the (entirely made up) title of “Federal Agent at Large.” His pitch is hastily written on American Airlines stationary, while Nixon takes the time to dismiss his penmanship as childlike. Nixon is a bit more studious; he tends to cram a few key phrases before meeting foreign leaders. Elvis’ desire to claim the badge seems motivated primarily by jealousy. He wants the same privilege afforded to Paul Frees’, the voice of Boris Badanov.

There is something quite cheeky in the way that Elvis and Nixon approaches the idea of American masculinity, presenting the President of the United States and the King of Rock and Roll as overgrown children. If the seventies can be seen as a point of crisis for American identity, as suggested by the shadow that Nixon casts and the legacy of the Vietnam War, Elvis and Nixon suggests that it marks a point at which larger than life figures truly seemed smaller on the inside.

Visiting royalty.

Visiting royalty.

Although Shannon anchors the first half of the film singlehanded, Elvis and Nixon really kicks into gear in its second half, once it throws its two leads together. The film adopts a delightfully odd couple dynamic to its characters, with Nixon and Elvis bouncing off one another delightfully. It starts confrontational, before the two characters seem to recognise how much they have in common; they both interpret their lives as prime examples of the American Dream. The characters are drawn somewhat broad, but Shannon and Spacey bounce off each other with gusto.

It is in the second half that Elvis and Nixon feels free to drift away from reality, to offer an account of the meeting that plays more like the collision of two archetypes than the meeting of two characters. Both Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley occupy unique places in the American consciousness, to the point that their names are almost emotional cues. Elvis himself talks about how he occasionally feels like the symbolic representation of the entire country’s first kiss, and Elvis and Nixon wisely plays into that. (There is even a clandestine meeting in a parking garage.)

"I'd like to talk to you Elvis-a-vis a badge."

“I’d like to talk to you Elvis-a-vis a badge.”

The shrewder barbs of Elvis and Nixon are cleverly concealed, playing a bit like Elvis’ proposed undercover work. Although Nixon and Elvis construct narratives of shared strengths and mythic journeys, the film hints subtly at more fundamental similarities. Elvis’ complaints about drug abuse and Nixon’s fixation on Russian alcoholism betray the pair as hypocrites in their own ways. Both are men hiding inside their own mythologies. The isolation and loneliness that marked the sad strange last days of the Nixon White House resonate with Graceland.

In some ways, Elvis and Nixon brings two sad strange representatives of seventies America face to face and lets them play off one another. Indeed, it could be argued that the film is a sly twist on contemporary “mash-up” culture, the contemporary fixation on throwing strange elements together in the hopes of creating something new; much like Pacific Rim is Transformers meets Godzilla or the way The Avengers synthesises its own elements or pulpy thrill of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Aliens vs. Predator.

President and account for.

President and account for.

Perhaps this reflects the chaotic tone of the seventies. Early scenes of Elvis and Nixon find Elvis relaxing in Graceland’s infamous “Television Room”, watching multiple televisions at the same time and feeling just as isolated as Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Soaking in the ambient broadcasts of a wall of television creates a sense of apocalyptic cacophony, of a world that is coming apart at the seams. Indeed, the very idea of a meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon seems like the result of a seventies channel-hopping fever dream.

The fact that it really happened is perhaps more striking than anything that could possibly have happened in that weird thirty-minute window. Elvis and Nixon captures that surreality. The result is fun and illuminating, as cheeky and cheerful as it is weird and sad. Elvis and Nixon is as odd and erratic as its namesakes, and that’s what makes it such a joy to watch.

6 Responses

  1. Man, the first meeting between Lex Luthor and General Zod was WEEEEEEIIIIIRRRRRRRD…

    Looks like a cool movie. Might check it out soon.

  2. Interesting sounding film.

    Nixon might be the most fascinating man to have occupied the White House and at times I’m more than half convinced he was fictional – he seems to have stepped into this world from a novel or film. Then again I can’t even imagine what modern American pop culture would look like without him, in the same way it is very hard to picture British pop culture if Margaret Thatcher had become a chemist after all.

    • Nixon has a sort of a “cautionary tale” quality to him, doesn’t he? If you had to make up a “bad President”, he’d look a lot like Nixon. Paranoid, insecure, abusive of power, isolated, perhaps even unstable at the peak, contrasted against the ideal that John F. Kennedy has become.

      • While I’ve no doubt Nixon always had his issues beforehand I think the defeat by Kennedy must have hurt him terribly. Nixon had been a Vice President, and given Eisenhower’s poor health, an active Vice President at that. He had great experience, he was part of a ticket that delivered a prosperous stable era to America (at least outwardly). He had been a figure on the world stage who had debated with Khrushchev. Who was Jack Kennedy? The insubstantial pretty boy son of a defeatist bootlegger with one of the worst attendance records in Congress?

        To lose (so narrowly!) to a man so inferior in qualifications as Kennedy must have seemed to Nixon, to have been the worst moment imaginable, proof if ever any was needed of the fickleness and ingratitude of the American public, dazzled by good looks and charm.

        (To be clear I am trying to put myself in Nixon’s shoes here, not my views – though I admit that at the time I would probably have considered Nixon the better candidate.)

      • I’m more sympathetic to Nixon than most, if only because his story is so easy to cast as tragic. I also find something strange in the veneration of John F. Kennedy, which provides a clear contrast. I read Conrad Black’s biography of Nixon, which is fascinating. He also makes the case that when Nixon was Vice President he never felt like he had Eisenhower’s support or respect, which undoubtedly contributed to that sense of paranoia and isolation.

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