'Elvis & Nixon': When the King Met the President

A review of Elvis & Nixon, a movie inspired by the 1970 meeting of the King of Rock 'n' Roll and President Richard Nixon.
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Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon Photo Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

Elvis & Nixon begins with Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) watching television at home, on multiple screens, and growing increasingly upset at news reports of the Vietnam War protests. The promise of this clever sequence, that provides a glimpse of that era, and the eccentric, gun-toting “King of Rock 'n' Roll," is short-lived. What follows is a drawn-out story of the events that led up to Elvis’s December 21st, 1970 meeting with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey), captured in a famous photo of them in the Oval Office. 

Elvis wrote to the president on American Airlines stationery while onboard a flight to Washington, D.C. After landing, he hand-delivered the letter to a guard at the White House gate. It said, in part: “Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out.” Elvis had served his country once before, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957. This time, he wanted to become an undercover agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a desire the film never explains. Elvis’s wife Priscilla later claimed that her husband thought credentials from the agency would allow him to carry guns and drugs wherever he went.

In Elvis & Nixon and in real life, Elvis’s letter found its way to Nixon aide Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), who arranged the meeting between the two men, and later wrote about it. The screenwriters drew upon his account, and that of the performer’s friend, Jerry Schilling. It also appears that they may have taken inspiration from Jonathan Lowy’s novel, Elvis and Nixon (2001). Like the filmmakers, Lowy imagines what unfolded between the time the letter was received and the day Elvis visited the Oval Office. The author portrays Elvis as a delusional, fading star—and the movie does, too. Actually, Elvis’s decline did not begin until after his divorce from Priscilla in 1973. 

In 1970, the iconic, 35-year-old performer was in the midst of a dramatic comeback, having attracted 22,000 fans to his first Las Vegas show the year before. That robust Elvis is not apparent in Michael Shannon who looks much older than his 42 years, and bears no resemblance to the performer. He also lacks Elvis’s onscreen presence and raw sex appeal. One wonders if the filmmakers did any historical research at all, or watched Elvis’s films. Shannon’s Elvis is somnolent and shuffling, the movie suggesting that there was a side to the King that bemoaned his fame. 

In one scene that will have you rolling your eyes, Elvis tells Schilling nobody sees the real Elvis. A tedious subplot involving Schilling, who must choose between staying with Elvis in Washington, D.C., or meeting his girlfriend’s parents back home, slows the turgid story so that it seems to take the entire 87-minute runtime to get to the unusual Oval Office encounter. Before that meeting, Nixon is incredulous about Krogh’s suggestion that Elvis could boost his popularity (the Democrats won overwhelming victories in the midterm elections that year), but once his daughter Julie sets him straight, the president readies himself for Elvis’s visit. The National Archives received 8,000 requests in 1988, when the photo of the two men was first released; to this day it remains the most popular in the Archives’ collection. 

Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley Photo Ollie Atkins/National Archives

The famous photo of President Richard Nixon meeting with Elvis Presley in the Oval Office on December 21st, 1970. (Photo: Ollie Atkins/National Archives)

Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Nixon is credible, if a bit muted, although he appears to be in an entirely different movie than Shannon. Spacey’s performance illustrates a satirical intent, while Shannon plays it straight. Despite Spacey’s efforts, and some deft editing of Elvis’s private audience with Nixon, the sequence is long and dull. In a 1994 TV production based on the same events, Elvis Meets Nixon (directed by Allan Arkush), Bob Gunton (Shawshank Redemption) did an hilarious turn as Nixon, and Rick Peters’s Elvis, was equally good. That movie is zany and silly, in the spirit of a story that is entirely improbable. 

Elvis & Nixon features odd musical interludes, one with Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), for instance, that refer to Elvis’s musical influences. One wishes the screenwriters had instead taken their cue from Lowy, who suggests Elvis songs to accompany each of his chapters. The performer was widely broadcast on radio in the early seventies, but none of his music is heard in the movie. While Liza Johnson’s direction of Elvis & Nixon leaves much to be desired, she is a talented filmmaker. Her writing and directing feature debut, Return (2011), the story of a female soldier coming home from a tour of duty in the Middle East, was excellent, and featured a nuanced performance by Linda Cardellini in the starring role. 

In the final sequence of Elvis & Nixon, during the private talk between the two men, the screenwriters, freed from historical fact (Nixon had not yet installed the recording device), and from eyewitness accounts, might have imagined the King showing Nixon how to swagger like a rock star, or Nixon asking Elvis’s advice on his wardrobe, or best of all, the president asking Elvis to jam with him. Nixon played five instruments, including the piano. 

As president, he was heard on piano often, and once, in a comic turn, accompanied White House guest Pearl Bailey for “My Wild Irish Rose”:

In Elvis & Nixon, Elvis drinks the president’s Dr. Pepper and steals all of his M&Ms. Nixon lets him because he is afraid that Elvis will refuse to give him an autograph he has promised to Julie.