Film review: Elvis & Nixon

David Gritten / 23 June 2016

Saga’s film critic on an enjoyable film based on a slim premise but enlarged by the presence of enormously talented actors.

Here’s a film that makes an awful lot of an essentially trivial if well-known incident – the day in 1970 when Elvis Presley was granted an audience with President Richard Nixon in the Oval office and requested official blessing to become an undercover federal agent, who would weed out ‘wrongdoers’ – notably those involved in the drug scene.

Nixon and his aides didn’t take Presley’s offer terribly seriously, but the two men met anyway. The value of celebrity association was not lost on the President’s team, especially as Nixon was never the most hip occupant of the White House;  posing for a photo with the King didn’t hurt Tricky Dicky one bit. 

What did come out of their meeting was a photo of the two men shaking hands; bizarrely it is now the most requested photo in the U.S. National Archive.

It’s a slim premise and a fleeting moment around which to base a full-length film, even a relatively brief one at 86 minutes; and the incidents depicted before and after the meeting, while amusing and entertaining enough, feel rooted in conjecture rather than fact.

The saving grace in Elvis & Nixon is the sheer talent of its two leads: Michael Shannon (Midnight Special, Take Shelter) and the great Kevin Spacey, playing a slightly different US President from Francis Underwood, the villainous hero of House of Cards. For my money, they’re two of the very best actors working in film and TV today.

Neither actor quite looks like the character he portrays, yet both of them capture their spirit uncannily well. Shannon has the quiff, the outlandish clothes, the swagger, the drawl – and the slurred “Thayervairrymerch” by which Presley expressed his gratitude. Spacey has zeroed in on Nixon’s body language – all hunched shoulders, sweaty anxiety and petulant impatience.

The odd thing about Elvis & Nixon is that its climactic meeting between the two men is almost its low point: it’s the scurrying around of presidential aides and the weary obedience of Presley’s henchmen trying to indulge their boss’s eccentric whims that provide the best entertainment.

There’s another problem with the film, and that’s the lack of any Presley music on the soundtrack. Elvis these days is often represented in caricatured fashion, but he was also a great singer, and this feels like a real omission. (One presumes the rights to his music were not made available.)

You can add up all the drawbacks, but the fact remains: Shannon and Spacey make this a watchable, enjoyable entertainment.

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