Elvis & Nixon – film review by Calum Maclean
Elvis & Nixon
Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes
Cast – Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan, Sky Ferreira and Johnny Knoxville
One of the strangest meetings of twentieth century cultural figures is the inspiration for this slight yet enjoyable film. On December 21 1970 Elvis Aaron Presley, king of rock and roll, really did meet with Republican president Richard Milhouse Nixon with the aim of being appointed “federal agent at large”, and acquiring an official badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Alas, Nixon’s infamous oval office recording system was not yet installed, though notes were taken of their conversation, which gives the filmmakers licence to embellish the story into some far-fetched areas, but still rooted in the real life quirks of their exchange.
The first half deals primarily with Elvis and his encounters with fawning fans and hangers on, his sense of isolation and loose grip on reality played mainly for laughs but with an undercurrent of pathos by Michael Shannon. The actor bears little facial resemblance to Elvis, but his mannerisms, costume and over the top persona not only fit the unreal tone of the film, but also appear accurate considering the public perception of Presley seemed more of a character than a human being, an aspect explored in some of the more melancholy scenes. The same is true of Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Nixon, with elements of caricature in his voice, stance and blustering personality, but the performance gives glimpses of the insecurity and self-loathing, not to mention the insincerity, that would define Nixon’s place in history a few years later.
The supporting cast are all good, though standouts are Colin Hanks as Egil “Bud” Krogh and Evan Peters as Dwight Chapin, with their farcical attempts to convince Nixon and instruct Elvis providing some of the best comedy. Alex Pettyfer as Jerry Schilling is almost the protagonist at times but the sub plot of his attempts to get home to his girlfriend doesn’t quite engage, though his scenes with Michael Shannon do illustrate the loneliness of Elvis’s fame and his need to be surrounded by old friends who remember “that boy from Memphis.”
The main flaw in the film is relatively slow pace in the first half, but Shannon’s performance keeps you interested. However, once Spacey enters the story the movie hits its stride and both men have great chemistry as they bring out shared characteristics as well as providing some terrifically awkward comedy.
While there is no real plot to speak of aside from the build to the meeting, then the conversation itself, and the ending is a little abrupt, there is plenty of pleasure to be found in the performances and the comic absurdity of the scenario. Elvis & Nixon is well worth a watch.
Calum Maclean, 30 June, 2016
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