US presidents have always enjoyed hanging out with celebrities. John F Kennedy was well-known for his "meetings" with Marilyn Munroe, and often dined with Frank Sinatra. Former actor Ronald Reagan was pals with Muhammad Ali and kiddie-fiddler Michael Jackson. Bill Clinton once performed on stage with Bruce Springsteen. And Barack Obama took it to the next level by hitting the late-night talk-show circuit. But Richard "Tricky Dickie" Nixon was not known for his celebrity connections – which is what makes this little-known meeting with Elvis Presley such a fascinating story.
For a start, it's 100% true. On December 21, 1970, Presley and Nixon met in the Oval Office at the White House and spent half an hour together. The only evidence of that meeting is a somewhat famous photograph (said to now be requested photograph in the US National Archives) of the two men shaking hands - there was no official recording of what took place. So Elvis & Nixon screenwriters Cary Elwes and Joey and Hanala Sagal were free to let their immaginations run wild and come up with a smart and funny "what if" scenario.
Right from the word go, the film's biggest asset is its two leads, Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey – two of the finest actors around. Of course, neither one of them is the spitting image of the man he is playing, but that matters not in the slightest. When Elvis met Nixon, he was 35 years old. Shannon is almost 10 years older than that, and nowhere near as handsome as Presley was. But Shannon is not really trying to do an impersonation here – in one scene at an airport, an actual Presley impersonator tells him that he's a terrible Elvis. He has the hair and the clothes, but doesn't try to do the voice; what he does do is capture Presley's presence and mannerisms in this quirky tale of Elvis's attempt be deputised as a “federal agent-at-large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Yes, that was why he wanted a meeting with the President – he wanted to be given this non-existent post, as he tells Nixon, to undercover to battle America’s rising drug problems (in reality, according to Priscilla Presley’s memoirs, he actually wanted to travel freely with as many drugs as he could carry). And Spacey, like Shannon, is not a doppleganger for the person he is playing. He has Nixon's hair, but there is no bulbous nose and he dopesn't try to mimick Dickie's vloice; what he does do is copy his mannerisms and his way of speaking.
Elvis & Nixon may not be actual historical fact, but what it does beautifully is capture a moment in time and imagine what such a meeting between the most popular entertainer on the planet and the most powerful man in the world would have been like. Even though there is no actual record of the meeting, the filmmakers do draw on eye-witness accounts from those who were there at the time: Presley's pals Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), as well as Nixon advisor Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and special assistant Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters). Conservative (and somewhat dull) Nixon is not keen to meet The King, but Chapin and Krogh convince him it's a marvellous PR opportunity (his approval rating was quite low at the time) ... plus his daughter Julie is a fan and would kill for Elvis's autograph.
They might have been polar opposites in the public's eyes, but it seems that Elvis and Nixon had more in common than people might think. Elvis & Nixon is a film that nicely plays on the absurdity of the situation, and all involved have a ball with the material with director Liza Johnson making perfect use of her excellent cast. It doesn't give us any real fresh insights into what we already knew about these two men, but it does nicely capture a moment in time in a very humorous way. It's lovely to see Shannon's Elvis sweep into the Oval Office and ignore all the protocols he has been given, helpikng himself to the President's M&Ms and his bottle of Dr Pepper. Celebrity, narcisism and power are nicely and gently mocked in a meeting that is very much of its time, and one that, in this modern completely-connected world, we are unlikely to ever see again.