Elvis & Nixon

Director: Liza Johnson (2016)

Elvis Presley enters the building in this rocking good dramatisation of the day he dropped by the White House to visit president Nixon.

They are played with competitive brilliance by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.

These global heads of music and politics met on December 21 1970. This is in the wake of the optimism of the luna landing and before the crucifixion of the American psyche caused by fall of Saigon.

Brooding in his Graceland mansion and disgusted by the state of the world, Elvis flies to Washington DC. Guards are bemused when he rocks up to the White House and asks to see the President.

Nixon is persuaded a joint photo will help him capture the youth vote. Elvis wants to become a Federal Agent At Large, in order to infiltrate the underworld and fight crime.

A smart script milks the meeting for humour and a comparison of their homes flags up the similarities between the isolated, paranoid and self made pair.

They bond over a love for their daughters and share fears for America’s future in the face of a youth culture neither understand.

Their defining relationships are with flunkies who sacrifice their own lives to serve. Alex Pettyfer and Colin Hanks provide very effective support as Elvis acolyte Jerry Schilling and White House aide Egil Krogh.

The emotional core of the film lies in the gap between the differing attitudes of these characters to their bosses.

With hunched shoulders and wrists flashing like a snakes tongue, Kevin Spacey captures the voice and mannerisms of Tricky Dicky. A broad performance rather than deep but we enjoy it almost as much as the actor does.

Nixon has been essayed several times on screen. In Frost/Nixon (2008) in a best supporting Oscar winning turn by  Frank Langella. Anthony Hopkins played him in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Dan Hedaya was a Nixon surrogate in Dick (1999). My personal favourite Nixon is James Le Gros in surf and bank robbing thriller Point Break (1991).

In a film career of increasingly questionable quality Elvis starred in 31 movies. Viva Las Vegas (1964) was his last excellent film and it’s notable it was released the same year as The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the band who pushed Elvis aside as they imported a new brand of music to the US.

Kurt Russell was enjoyable in TV movie Elvis (1979) and Val Kilmer was a charismatic gold lame-clad spiritual guide in the Tarantino scripted True Romance (1993).

The brave decision not to feature any Elvis songs in Elvis & Nixon prevents us from being distracted by miming or less than perfect singing.

Shannon looks even less like Elvis than I do, but his astute and captivating performance sidesteps caricature to give us the man and the myth.

Still capable of causing hysteria in secretaries and receptionists wherever he goes, Elvis is thoughtful and proudly polite, employing his charm and celebrity status to open doors.

Deadly serious in his intentions and brilliant at relating to people, he also seems a couple of places removed from our everyday reality.

This is an existential Elvis struggling with the weight of his own legacy, gold medallions and sunglasses. One who recognises the gap between the lonesome rockabilly and the global superstar and is calculating enough to use the latter to achieve the objectives of the former.

The meeting in the Oval Office is all too brief and being a consummate performer, the king keeps us wanting more.


2 thoughts on “Elvis & Nixon

  1. Wouldn’t really say The Beatles “pushed Elvis aside”. It was more like he took a step back and they arrived at the perfect time when that happened. They clearly weren’t in direct competition with him throughout the 60s because firstly he was now a movie star and secondly he hardly released any of his own music choices then. Funnily enough they split shortly after he made a triumphant return to the music business, although I’m not suggesting the two events are connected there.


  2. I don’t believe there was a deliberate intention on The Beatles part to stifle Elvis’ career but in moving youth culture in a new direction they stormed the cultural heights he had previously commanded and his career stagnated as he became less relevant.
    If The Beatles hadn’t quit at the height of their career they would similarly have been victims of the next youth movement. They would never have survived punk. Ultimately its an ever regenerating demographic of young teens which defines its cultural heroes and the gods fall as part of a natural cycle we now understand with hindsight but couldn’t see clearly back in 1964. Thanks for taking the time to raise an interesting point.


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