Elvis & Nixon chronicles the day in December 1970, treasured by absurdists and pop-culture fanatics the world over, when Elvis Presley got himself invited to the Oval Office to talk with President Richard Nixon. You've seen the photograph of them shaking hands, the most-requested image in the National Archives; you've probably heard the story of their meeting, in which the King charmed Tricky Dick and came away with a special badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Presley and Nixon have been objects of public fascination for so long, and have been portrayed onscreen by so many different people already, that any movie bringing them together runs the risk of turning into a cartoon—which this one is. The spectacle of Presley visiting Nixon's buttoned-down White House in his jeweled sunglasses, silk scarf, open shirt, and giant gold belt is inherently farcical, but Elvis & Nixon might have delivered more than dumb laughs.
Worse than dumb laughs, the movie offers a relatively dumb take on what was really going on during this summit between America's biggest singer and America's biggest square. As scripted by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, Elvis & Nixon is the story of a simple country boy (Michael Shannon) who mesmerizes a slick politician (Kevin Spacey) with his preternatural cool and self-confidence. By the end of their meeting, Nixon stares in admiration as Elvis shows off his karate moves (this never happened). The truth is that Nixon was a political master and Presley was his dupe. Their meeting had nothing to do with narcotics, or America's youth, or communist infiltration of rock music, or anything else Presley had on his mind—it was all part of Nixon's crafty southern strategy, a sort of triangulation on the issue of race that had won him the presidency in 1968 and would return him to office again in 1972.
Elvis & Nixon draws heavily on a memoir by Jerry Schilling, Presley's old Memphis friend and confidante, who was working at Paramount Pictures when he received an unexpected call from the King. Presley, furious at his wife and father for lecturing him about his profligate spending, had impulsively grabbed a flight from Memphis to Washington, D.C., and was now heading for Los Angeles. "For the first time in fifteen years, nobody close to Elvis knew where he was," writes Schilling. Reunited with his old pal, Presley announced they were returning to Washington, and on the flight back to D.C. he wrote a semicoherent letter to the president in which he attacked "the Drug Culture, the Hippie Elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc" and offered his services to the country as a federal agent, "doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages." On the ground in Washington, Presley and Schilling took a limousine to the west gate of the White House at 6:30 AM, where the singer emerged from the car to deliver the letter to startled marine guards.
Director Liza Johnson plays up the lunacy of all this, but even as a simple comedy Elvis & Nixon can't survive Michael Shannon's disastrous miscasting. Shannon is one of the best screen actors working, but his face could stop a clock—there's no way he could be the gorgeous hunk whose bedroom eyes and lopsided grin inspired women at his concerts to clamor for his sweaty handkerchiefs. In person, Presley had a powerful sense of fun that could pull people into his mischief, but Shannon plays him as more of a Scary Elvis, intimidating people with his curled lip. Ushered into the Oval Office with Nixon, he immediately helps himself to the bowl of M&Ms and bottle of Dr. Pepper laid out exclusively for the president. What is supposed to be a five-minute visit turns into the better part of an hour as Elvis vents his spleen about the anti-Americanism of the Beatles (this actually happened), gives the president a chrome-plated World World II Colt .45 (so did this), and lobbies the leader of the free world for a ceremonial badge to add to his collection.
Kevin Spacey, who has plenty of experience playing a conniving politician on Netflix's House of Cards, makes a much better Nixon, though he portrays the dark and damaged leader like a befuddled dad on a TV sitcom. Some of the movie's best laughs come in Nixon's rueful glances to his young aides (Colin Hanks, Evan Peters) as Presley takes over the Oval Office, pitching himself as a kind of showbiz secret agent who can go undercover and inform on the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. The president's men want to enlist Elvis as a spokesman against drug abuse, though Presley looks so stoned in the famous photo that you don't need to ask what happened to that idea. By the end of the visit, Elvis has Nixon eating out of the palm of his hand, calling him a "cool cat" and signing a photo for his daughter, Julie. On the phone with Julie that evening, Nixon tries to twirl the chrome-plated revolver as proof of his newfound cool but drops the gun on himself like a klutz.
This is all pretty amusing, but it puts too benign a spin on what was just another of Nixon's cynical stratagems. Nixon wasn't afraid of Jerry Garcia—he was afraid of George Wallace, the segregationist and former Alabama governor who had run for president as an independent in 1968 and had fought Nixon for the southern vote. Nixon, presenting himself as the sensible center between Wallace and liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey, refused to play the race card that year because he wanted to be able to govern when he took office; his strategy against Wallace was focused not on the Deep South but on the more peripheral Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee (he won them all). A Memphis boy like Elvis would have been useful to Nixon in '72, when he expected to face Wallace again. In fact he was just the sort of representative Nixon needed, someone perceived by other whites as being in touch with African-American culture but also a true-blue patriot who wholeheartedly supported the president's law-and-order agenda (and traveled armed to the teeth with registered firearms).
"Every single voter in the south loves Elvis," argues one of the president's men when he's trying to sell Nixon on the meeting. The president doesn't reply, and the screenwriters do nothing more with the idea. But there's an unpleasant, rather undigested scene in which Elvis stops in at a coffee shop in a black neighborhood, pushes his way to the front of the line, and orders one of the shop's "Original Maple Bars." A woman who's recognized him calls out, "Original my ass!" and the patrons all laugh. When a man compliments Elvis's gold rings, he pulls up a pant leg to reveal the pistol in his boot and sneers, "We aim to keep them—me and Lucille." Schilling comes in to rescue him, and Elvis gets the last laugh by ordering him an "original-my-ass maple bar." Not everyone in the south loves Elvis, but everyone learns to live with him. v