DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It’s likely that most people have seen the now classic photo of President Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley at the White House on December 21, 1970. The new film “Elvis & Nixon” is about that historic meeting. It stars Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey is Richard Nixon. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Like many people, I can’t get enough of Richard Nixon, and not just in relation to Watergate, which Bob Woodward called the gift that keeps on giving. In Harry Shearer’s online series “Nixon’s The One,” he showed you could make a great psycho comedy simply by performing the transcripts of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations. And the charming new film “Elvis & Nixon” goes a step further. It dramatizes the meeting of two American icons and illuminates both men’s strange minds.
In December 1970, Presley actually delivered a letter to the White House, asking to meet with Nixon and be appointed a federal agent at large in the war on drugs, though no such title existed. Yes, Presley had scandalized conservatives in the ’50s, but the movie shows him to be a fundamentally well-mannered Southern boy who loved his guns and his country and only abused legal drugs. He’s appalled by much of the counterculture. He fantasizes going undercover and bringing drug dealers to justice. And he gets his meeting.
It’s hard to imagine the weirdness, the sheer discontinuum of Nixon and Elvis together. Nixon’s alienation from the pop culture of his day was total. He didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll, but he knew it was made by his enemies – long-haired kids who flouted authority. In the movie, Kevin Spacey’s Nixon assumes Elvis is like all the others maybe worse – as he rambles to his aide Egil Bud Krogh, played by Colin Hanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “ELVIS & NIXON”)
KEVIN SPACEY: You know, Krogh, guys like that who were just born good-looking – well, you obviously know – they never had to work for it, if you know what I mean. Not me, no, I had to make something of myself to get a girl to notice me. It wasn’t just handed to me by some sort of genetic lottery. I wasn’t born looking like a Kennedy, you know. But that’s why guys like me are survivors. But guys like this Elvis fellow – no, underneath all that they’re weak. They whither at the first sign of trouble. They just crumble like a sand dune.
EDELSTEIN: There’s a subtext to that scene in “Elvis & Nixon.” Nixon never got over losing to the photogenic John F. Kennedy. And he’s pickled in bitterness. Kevin Spacey captures as no one I’ve seen the stiffness born of terrible insecurity, that lack of elasticity that made Nixon so ill at ease and such a stickler for protocol. Michael Shannon plays Elvis before the weight gain, but after Presley’s alienation from the world. Shannon doesn’t do much of an Elvis impersonation, but I think he nails something in Presley – the casual, soft-spoken kingliness. This Presley believes that he can bend the world to his will, and it’s a riot when he saunters into federal offices and causes people to freeze in disbelief. Everyone bows down to him, no matter how ridiculous his words, with the notable exception of the African-American characters who plainly resent his appropriation of their music.
Director Liza Johnson has the right sprightly touch. The film comes in at a trim 86 minutes, but not all of them work, perhaps out of fear the audience won’t relate to either Elvis or Nixon. The filmmakers often focus on an old chum of Presley’s, Jerry Schilling, played by Alex Pettyfer, whom Presley drags to Washington and who’s forced to choose between the king and his own fiance back in Los Angeles. It’s not a painful subplot, only formulaic and inessential.
But the last act is everything it should be. A title crawl informs us no tape exists of the actual Elvis-Nixon meeting. But if it didn’t happen the way it does here, it should have. Nixon is disarmed by Presley’s denunciations of hippies and war protesters, which really was how subordinates won Nixon’s confidence, attacking his enemies even before he could. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. In their insane way, these two lost souls connect. “Elvis & Nixon” is a doodle, but it’s not a slight as some of its critics have complained.
In addition to depicting its title characters in a new light, it shows the crazy-making insulation of celebrity. Elvis and Nixon, each in his own way, have so much power. But their windows on the world are now fun house mirrors, reflecting back, even magnifying their own nuttiness.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m David Bianculli.
On Monday’s show, we look back on the heyday of LA’s punk scene with John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the band X and Dave Alvin of The Blasters. Doe has put together a new book about those early days. They brought guitars and will perform live versions of a couple of songs, including this one by the band X.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE WORLD’S A MESS IT’S IN MY KISS”)
X: (Singing) No one is united and all things are untied. Perhaps we’re boiling over inside. They’ve been telling lies. Who’s been telling lies? There are no angels. There are devils in many ways. Take it like a man. The world’s a mess. It’s in my kiss. The world’s a mess. It’s in my kiss. The world’s a mess. It’s in my kiss. The world’s a mess. It’s in my kiss. You can’t take it back. Pull it out of the fire. Pull it out in the bottom of the ninth. Pull it out. In chords of red disease dragging my system, dragging my head and body. There are some facts here that refuse to escape. I could say it stronger but it’s too much trouble. I was wondering down at the bricks. Hectic, isn’t it? Down we go, cradle and all. No one is united…
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