The single most requested photograph held by the American National Archives is one of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Richard Nixon. That meeting has become the stuff of legend: a past-his-prime rock ’n roll star and an unpopular President, both destined to leave their mark on history for very different reasons. The film Elvis & Nixon (2016) is a humorous historical account of this unlikely encounter between soul-mates from different worlds. But that story is merely the picture frame, within which is a deep and brooding portrait of two troubled souls.
It’s a moment in time that speaks volumes for an era. By December 1970, the shining star that was the iconic Elvis (Michael Shannon) is beginning to fade. His marriage to Priscilla is on the rocks, the Beatles invaded then left America after making a fortune, and drugs and alcohol are taking their toll on brand Elvis. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) is an anxious president who desperately wants to be loved, and is quite possibly a lonely neurotic if Oliver Stone’s excellent film Nixon (1995) is to be believed. Despite Nixon’s misgivings, the two stars are fated to collide.
A few days before Christmas 1970, Elvis spontaneously composes an admiring letter to Nixon asking for a meeting and delivers it personally at the White House gates. Nixon is fretting about his rising unpopularity, particularly amongst the youth vote, and he grudgingly agrees to meet the music legend for a few minutes. The presidential staff are all over the place with excitement while the meeting becomes a prolonged chat between two people lightening each other’s personal baggage. And history was made.
There is much to enjoy in this film. Shannon and Spacey are so brilliant that it is easy to ignore how little they resemble Elvis and Nixon. Both portray emotional vulnerability to perfection, with Elvis borderline delusional about getting an undercover narcotics agent badge and solving the nation’s youth-drug problem, while Nixon obsesses about getting an autograph for his daughter so he can be a cool dad. While these two flawed yet powerful figures fret about how the mop-headed singers from England were mobbed by adoring crowds, the world was in the midst of a nuclear arms race, the black rights movement and the Vietnam War. This film captures it all, with broad brush-strokes that linger on funny details while it sweeps an era of history into a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining story.
Director: Liza Johnson
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon