Good though mostly fictional movies have been made about newspaperman Henry M. Stanley meeting Dr. David Livingstone in Deepest Africa (“Stanley and Livingston”), a moment immortalized in Stanley’s greeting of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” and people’s lives being changed forever by the Beatles’ first appearance in the U.S. (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) or the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (“Bobby”).
Yet “Elvis & Nixon” suggests the fictionalization of such real-life moments can shed light on the psychoses of real-life personalities as well.
As anyone who has seen that single photo from the National Archives knows, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, dropped by the Oval Office for a meet-and-greet with President Richard M. Nixon on a crisp December morn in 1970. In fact, it’s the most requested photo in the National Archive.
What did these two creatures from different planets even talk about? Some filmmakers wondered about this too but, unfortunately, that meeting took place in late 1970 and Nixon did not begin his infamous White House taping project until February 1971. So the record is pretty blank.
For inspiration the filmmakers were able to draw upon the memories of a few present including Elvis’ buddy Jerry Schilling and Nixon aides Egil “Bud” Krogh and Dwight Chapin. Plus a copy of Elvis’ hand-written letter to the President requesting the meeting delivered to startled White House guards at the Northwest Gate still survives.
After that, it’s all plausible conjecture.
So what to do but turn “Elvis & Nixon” into a comedy. As comedies go, it’s pretty funny. There are more laughs here than in the latest Melissa McCarthy comedy (admittedly that’s not saying much).
Much of the humor derives from the sheer surreal nature of the encounter and, before and afterwards, an astonishing glimpse into the lives of two closeted individuals who hid in plain sight of the American public.
The film, written by Joey & Hanala Sagal (“Traumedy Central”) and actor Cary Elwes and directed by Liza Johnson (“Return,” “Hateship Loveship”), sees them as being more closely aligned in outlook and paranoia than you might imagine. Johnson uses the term “Historical Bromance,” which might be an exaggeration, but she makes the case that it’s not much of one.
They bond, as it were, over their mutual hatred of the counterculture, the media and the Beatles. The movie is more about Elvis than Nixon, however, which makes sense since it was he who sought the meeting and is certainly, in American culture at least, the more mysterious individual.
That great actor Michael Shannon — there seemingly is no role he cannot bring wisdom, perspicacity and inspiration to — plays Elvis and when I say “plays” I don’t mean yet another Elvis impersonation.
In fact, one of the more amusing scenes in the film has Shannon’s Elvis encounter a couple of Elvis impersonators at the airport, who think he is one of them, and as they do their act for him, you suddenly realize how far Shannon has gone beyond superficial mannerisms and vocal ticks to establish his Elvis as a credible, vulnerable yet outsized personality.
His Elvis is a man given to much introspection and moody restlessness. He worries over the future of his country. He is obsessed with its cultural and social drift and is anxiously trying to find a role for himself in the counter-counterculture.
He imagines if Nixon would only deputize him as a “federal agent-at-large,” he can somehow infiltrate the drug/counterculture/protest scene and help undermine it; he sees himself no longer as a rock ’n’ roll rebel but rather an agent for the Establishment.
The movie’s initial scenes do not give you much confidence though in Elvis’ mental stability in the days leading up to the meeting. He hunkers down in his Graceland TV room —you’re told it’s been recreated down to the last detail — firing a gun at his TV set when displeased at its news content.
He flies out to L.A. on a whim, for once without his minders and entourage so doesn’t realize he can’t stride onto an airliner with guns strapped on. He’s upset by the nation’s youth, out of touch with their ideals and politics, and somehow imagines Nixon a soulmate.
He flies, again impulsively although this time with an entourage of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and a “Memphis Mafia” member going by the name of Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), to Washington D.C. to deliver that letter to the President.
Nixon’s aides, Krough (Colin Hanks) and Chapin (Evan Peters), must first verify its authenticity and then, in those quaint times before politics and entertainment became one and the same thing, convince Nixon that a meeting with Elvis might be a good idea in an election year.
They fail, but a second attempt, using First Daughter Julie’s delight in a potential autograph from the King, succeed. So the meeting’s on the next day.
Kevin Spacey, who must be as familiar now with the Oval Office as any president, plays Nixon in what is easily the best portrayal by any actor yet of the 37th president. So watching these two immensely talented actors, Spacey and Shannon, do a dance around the Oval Office and around one another is, as the saying goes, worth the price of admission.
Spacey is hilarious as Nixon but not in a demeaning or condescending way, but with an accurate representation of his physical demeanor — stooped over and frowning — and his grumpy, pissed-off persona. He’s a man who achieved his life’s goal, the Oval Office, only to be bedeviled by critics and a massive inferiority complex.
And now Elvis!
Both men are essentially unhinged in their own peculiar ways. Elvis with his obsession over changing times and his own restless nature and Nixon with a world that changed on him while running for office.
Neither trusts anyone or hardly anyone but surrounds himself with an entourage of bright fellows to make certain he doesn’t wander too far off the range.
The old “Odd Couple” was about two friends poles apart in personality quirks, habits and outlook. “Elvis & Nixon” is about two strangers, seemingly poles apart too, who actually are two sides of the same tarnished coin.
They never met again and Elvis never became an agent-at-large. (There is no such thing.) Elvis died less than seven years later from an overdose of prescription drugs. Nixon resigned from office less than four years later, brought down by an irrational burglary and his subsequent coverup, undone ultimately by paranoia over enemies and the media.
“Elvis & Nixon” catches both men at a nexus of absurdist comedy and overwhelming personality disorders.
Opens: April 22, 2016 (Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street)
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
Music: Edward Shearmur
Costume designer: Peggy Schnitzer
Editors: Michael Taylor, Sabine Hoffman
R rating, 100 minutes.