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Care to guess which is the most requested photo from the millions housed in the National Archives? That would be a picture of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon posing together in the Oval Office. Liza Johnson’s film comically imagines exactly what transpired to result in the meeting of these two iconic figures who could not have been more different. Featuring hilarious yet acutely observed performances by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as the titular characters, Elvis & Nixon, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a hoot. If the film doesn’t show things the way they actually happened, it shows them the way they should have.
The joke begins with the casting of Shannon, who couldn’t resemble Elvis less either physically or vocally, the slurred “Thank you very much” aside. But somehow the actor pulls off the characterization, superbly conveying Presley’s oddness and self-absorbed isolation while also projecting sufficient charisma to be believable as an entertainment idol. It’s a hysterically deadpan turn that is movingly haunting as well.
The pic begins, naturally, with a scene of Elvis shooting his television to smithereens. It’s winter 1970, and the King decides to fly to Washington, with his sidekick Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to fulfill his grandiose dream of becoming a “Federal Agent-at-Large.” The two men show up at the White House gate, much to the incredulity of the guards, and when denied immediate entrance Elvis leaves a handwritten note for the president.
The missive is channeled to Nixon’s aides Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Even Peters), who pass it along to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan). He returns their memo recommending the meeting with one comment scrawled in the margin: “You must be kidding!” (This actually happened.) Meanwhile, Elvis, along with Schilling and his other underling Sonny (an amusing Johnny Knoxville), anonymously holes up in a D.C. motel.
In time, though, Nixon reluctantly agrees to a short meeting, albeit with the proviso that he can get Presley’s autograph for his star-struck daughter, Julie. The ensuing encounter — for which Elvis has brought, much to the consternation of the Secret Service, the gift of a World War II-era Colt pistol — is priceless.
“Looks a little like my place,” Elvis observes about the White House.
While at first Nixon has little use for his visitor, even instructing his aides to interrupt the meeting as soon as possible, he soon finds himself strangely bonding with the sunglass-wearing superstar over their shared disdain for the counterculture. Needless to say, opportunities for irony are rampant, and the film milks them for all their worth.
The sharply astute, satirical screenplay by Joey and Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) is filled with priceless moments, including Presley’s amused run-in with some Elvis impersonators at the airport who assume he’s one of them; his meeting with a Drug Enforcement Administration official (Tracy Letts) who can barely contain his mockery of the request of a badge; his excursion to a donut shop where he encounters some bemused African-American locals; and the climactic meeting which could stand on its own as a brilliant one-act play.
Spacey uses his polished mimicry skills to superb effect as Nixon, uncannily recreating his guttural vocal mannerisms and hunched posture. But his performance goes beyond an expert impression, conveying the uneasiness in his own skin that strangely belied his political skills. It’s an affectionate warts-and-all portrayal that manages the difficult feat of making this much maligned historical figure vaguely sympathetic.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screening)
Distributor: Bleecker Street, Amazon Studios
Production: Amazon Studios, Elevated Films
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts
Director: Liza Johnson
Screenwriters: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
Producers: Holly Wiersma, Cassian Elwes, Cary Elwes
Executive producers: Jerry Schilling, Kevin Tent, Jason Micallef, Michael Shannon, Byron Wetzel, Michael Benaroya, Amy Rodrigue, Ali Jazayeri, Lisa Wolofsky, Rob Barnum, Laura Rister, David Hansen, Johnny Mac
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Mara LePere-Schloop
Editors: Michael Taylor, Sabine Hoffman
Costume designer: Peggy Schnitzer
Composer: Edward Shearmur
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Rated R, 87 minutes
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