If Oliver Stone and Peter Morgan ever decided to team up for a larky look at the darker conspiratorial currents of pop culture during the Nixon presidency, it might look like this entertaining, lenient reimagining of the most bizarre unofficial summit meeting in US history, drenched in retrospective irony and postmodern absurdity. This was the encounter of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley in 1970 in the Oval Office, commemorated with an official handshake photograph. Maybe Stewart Lee could create an opera based on this, like John Adams’s Nixon in China.
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey give seductively downbeat, in fact rather self-effacing turns as Elvis and Richard, those two titans having their close encounter of the mutually uncomprehending kind. Shannon’s performance is a very cool, controlled impression: interestingly, he underplays especially when he meets a couple of over-the-top Elvis impersonators. The role has turned the heat down on Shannon’s tendency to blazing-eyed scariness: it has brought out the non-Elvis in him. Spacey gives a workmanlike account of Nixon’s jowl-quivering dissatisfaction.
Elvis had turned up at the White House unannounced – furious about the country’s decline and about youngsters’ infatuation with those leftie Brits, the Beatles; he wanted a sit-down with the president to discuss this, and privately request a special federal-agent-at-large badge so he could keep a covert eye on drug-taking in the entertainment community. Evidently, the White House calculated that the photo op would be a net PR gain. Did this surreal meeting with showbiz royalty encourage Nixon to accept David Frost’s plea for an interview after Watergate? Who knows?
I first became aware of Presley/Nixon on seeing the photo as a drolly ironic postcard in a gift-wrapping shop: the description on the back noted the irony of Presley’s anti-drug stance given his own dependence on pharmaceuticals and suggested the photo shows a woozy look in Elvis’s eyes. No woozier than the president’s, I’d say, but we are entitled to wonder if drugs played a part in the King’s bizarre obsession with being sworn in as a federal agent. Well, Presley is never shown taking drugs, even when he is getting angry with the immorality he sees on TV and shoots the hell out of the screen. There’s also no hanky-panky with women in his hotel room, incidentally. From beyond the grave, the King has enforced a kind of lèse majesté rule on director Liza Johnson and screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes.
The film contrives tense meetings with aides that recall Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing or maybe Armando Iannucci’s Veep. But there are also redundantly sinister meetings in car parks, together with dates and times flashed up on screen in typewriter lettering, vaguely suggesting some Stone-ish intrigue. Colin Hanks plays uptight White House staffer Bud Krogh, and Evan Peters is his associate Dwight Chapin; Tate Donovan plays Nixon’s exasperated chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, who really did sign off on the Presley meeting. I was hoping that the movie would go the whole fantasy hog and imagine a brush-by for Elvis with Dr Kissinger himself in the West Wing corridor, with maybe Bruno Ganz or Werner Herzog in cameo.
Amusingly, the president’s staff are contrasted with Elvis’s own entourage. Alex Pettyfer plays Elvis’s buddy Jerry Schilling, the straight-up guy who has a private drama of his own: he’s planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him. This is who we are encouraged to think of as the moral centre of the film, the guy who cares about Elvis as a human being and not just a celebrity. There’s also the slightly dodgier friend Sonny, played by Johnny Knoxville.
The film, like the meeting itself, is an entertaining oddity: there are moments when it is clearly padding the running time with imaginary diversions so we don’t simply get to the meeting too quickly. It’s not leading to any great emotional release, any important obstacle surmounted or life lesson learned. The spectacle is that of two very cantankerous reactionaries circling around each other. But the film can’t quite decide if we should feel sentimental or forgiving to them, and so flinches from the obvious potential for callous black-comic craziness, and relies on Jerry for its heartwarming qualities.
Elvis & Nixon is a diverting portrait of two great alpha dogs at bay, beginning to feel themselves slide. They are both wilting, but Johnson interestingly suggests they are buoyed up by each other’s presence. Presley was seven years from the end and Nixon just four years from his political demise: he was to resign in disgrace in 1974. He must have envied Elvis’s royal prerogative – dying in office.