If you remember the Nixon presidency at all—the odd, stiff gestures, the way the man hunkered down like a turtle trying to duck back into its shell, his paranoia and cluelessness, and his straight-arrow staff (all criminals in the making)—you will appreciate how much this odd movie (trailer) nailed the early 1970s!
My expectations weren’t high, and perhaps that’s the key, because it surprises you at every turn, even though the premise is tissue-thin. It’s based, after all, on the fact that the photo of Nixon meeting Elvis in the White House on December 21, 1970, is the most-requested photo in the National Archives. When you think of the treasures the Archives possesses, this is absurd on its face. A more incongruous encounter is hard to imagine, as Mark Olsen said in the Los Angeles Times, “one stiff in a businessman’s suit and the other relaxed in a velvet cape.”
What makes the film so strong are the performances. Kevin Spacey is Nixon in both body language and with his bitter, eye-popping rants. Michael Shannon is a less handsome yet ultimately powerfully sympathetic Presley. He visits the President to offer his help. He’s set on obtaining a badge as an At-Large Federal Agent so he can help combat the drugs and youth unrest he sees as destroying the country. In this goal he finds an ally in the President, or, as NPR reviewer Dave Edelstein said, “two lost souls connect.”Presley’s supreme confidence—arriving unannounced at the White House gate—makes an interesting counterpoint to Nixon’s lack of it.
The supporting cast—Colin (son of Tom) Hanks and Evan Peters as Nixon aides Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin and Alex Pettyfer as Presley confidant Jerry Schilling—all play it so straight the two leads are free to let the absurdities of the situation have full rein:
Krogh (to Bob Haldeman): The King is here.
Haldeman: The President doesn’t have any appointments with royalty.
Krogh: No. THE King. Elvis.
No one knows what really went on in that session. Nixon hadn’t started taping his encounters yet, though staff were present for parts of it. The script by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes is a plausible and imaginative recreation.Their humor can be subtle as well as laugh-out-loud (as I did, lots) and some great sight gags, too, like when Presley and Schilling run into an Elvis impersonator in the Los Angeles Airport. But it never goes for caricature or the cheap shot.
“Nobody really wants to see a big takedown of Elvis Presley,” director Liza Johnson said in the LA Times article linked above. “And nobody needs to see a big takedown of Richard Nixon because that happened already.”
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 76%; audiences, 77%.