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|ELVIS & NIXON REVIEWED
April 18, 2016 - The Guardian / Elvis Express Radio
he meeting between Richard M Nixon and Elvis Presley on 21 December 1970, is so legendary that the photograph that immortalized the moment is still the most requested image in
the National Archives. It’s a wonder, then, that it’s taken this long to imagine their summit on screen.
Writers Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes take major artistic liberties to retell the story of that the encounter and the events leading up to it in Elvis & Nixon, a breezy
comedy nimbly directed by Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship).
Given that the film is about two of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century, clearly casting is key to its success. Luckily, Johnson hit the jackpot by getting Michael Shannon
on board as the King and Kevin Spacey to play the corrupt president.
Although the film’s title suggests that it will be a two-hander, Nixon takes a back seat for much of the narrative to let Shannon take the lead as the King. His Presley is a star at a
crossroads, firmly aware of his celebrity but having lost sight of himself as a person.
“When I walk into a room, everyone remembers their first kiss watching one of my movies, but they never see me,” he laments. “He’s buried under gold and money. I don’t know if I
know who he is anymore.”
Probably in an effort to solve that conundrum (though he never explicitly says as much), Presley sets out on a mission to put his fame to use by vowing to fight for his country, which
he believes to be in shambles with the Vietnam war raging and drugs flooding the country. Declaring “it’s make or break time for this country,” he flies to the White House with the
lofty goal of convincing the president to deputise him as “federal agent-at-large”.
In these opening scenes, Shannon manages to immediately pass as Elvis by grounding the icon in some semblance of reality – no small feat. He mildly modifies his voice and
adopts some staccato mannerisms to resemble the Presley we know, but his interpretation succeeds largely because of his bold choice to underplay everything. Nothing in his
Presley seems affected – he plays him raw to the bone.
Spacey, given much less to do in the film, takes the opposite approach and goes broad. Because his appearance is so fleeting, it works. Playing Nixon strictly as a larger-than-life
character serves to highlight Presley as the film’s lead. When the pair finally meet eye-to-eye (Nixon concedes to the meeting in an effort to appeal to the youth vote and get an
autograph for his daughter), the stark contrast between the two provides Elvis & Nixon with its biggest laughs.
However, Johnson’s film falters when it veers from its titular duo to focus on the tangential ones who were along for the ride.
Colin Hanks is amusing to watch as the stressed-out Nixon staffer who orchestrates the main event. But a side plot involving Presley’s friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and his
desperate need to return back to Los Angeles to propose to his girlfriend (Sky Ferreira) falls completely flat.
When you have two of today’s best working actors acting on a high-wire to do justice to two of the most recognisable figures of the 20th century, it’s best to keep the focus solely
located on them.