America the beautiful4/27/2016
“Elvis & Nixon”
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Colin Hanks
In 1971, President Richard Nixon made the decision that would ultimately be his undoing and began recording every conversation that took place inside the Oval Office. It is a shame that he did not start a couple months earlier, because we are left to wonder about the specifics surrounding one of the most baffling moments in American history: the time Elvis Presley wanted to become an undercover drug agent.
“Elvis and Nixon” strives to tell the story behind a black and white portrait of an annoyed Nixon and a stoned Presley shaking hands in the single-most requested photo in the White House archives. That photograph stemmed from a meeting that Presley had personally flown to Washington, D.C., to lobby for, a meeting in which Presley laid out his desire to be named as a Special Agent-at-Large for the U.S. government so he could then go undercover and infiltrate drug rings in the hopes of getting American teens off weed.
By 1970, Presley was in full-on Bono mode, doing things just because they seemed like a good idea at the time and not letting little things like a lack of training, his overwhelming celebrity or plain common sense stand in the way of his desire to get a federal badge.
The film takes a number of liberties with the meeting itself because Nixon and Presley were alone in the Oval Office, and no record of their actual conversation exists. The details leading up to the meeting are pulled largely from a pair of memoirs, one written by Presley’s long-time friend Jerry Schilling and the other by Nixon staffer and future Watergate conspirator Egil Krogh.
The facts that we do know make for hilarious, compelling film all by themselves. On Dec. 21, 1970, Presley (Michael Shannon) drove up to the northwest gate of the White House, approached the gate guard detail and attempted to hand-deliver a letter to Nixon (Kevin Spacey). The six-page, hand-written letter outlined Presley’s deep concern over America’s fights against both the leftist drug culture and Communism and asked the president to name him as an agent of the Bureau of Narcotics so that he could infiltrate both groups himself.
Eventually, the letter makes it into the hands of Krogh (Colin Hanks), who sees an opportunity in the meeting. Nixon was never a particularly charismatic figure, and Krogh figures that if he can align himself in the public eye with a celebrity of Presley’s gigantic stature, people from all walks of life will view him more positively.
The film divides itself into two nearly equal parts. The first half follows Krogh as he attempts to convince Nixon that the meeting is a good idea while simultaneously giving us looks at Presley as he struggles with his own identity and feelings of lack of control in his own life. These are the parts of the film that director Liza Johnson pulls from the respective books.
The second half of the film covers the actual meeting between the two men, and it’s here that the film shoots off into the realm of speculation and fancy. It is also, not coincidentally, the point where the film goes from being merely interesting to outright hilarious.
Adding to the surreal nature of the scenes, Shannon looks almost nothing like Presley, and Spacey looks absolutely nothing like Nixon, yet both men are clearly having the time of their lives playing their respective characters to the hilt. “Elvis and Nixon” is a film that has absolutely no reason to exist and yet manages to be one of the most surprisingly entertaining films of the year. CV