‘Elvis & Nixon’ Film Review

A deliberately frothy take on an under-documented moment in US politics

An official White House photograph of Richard Nixon meeting Elvis Presley in the Oval Office on the morning of December 21, 1970 is the most requested item in the US National Archives. More people want copies of this brilliantly incongruous picture, which shows the 37th President of the United States smiling as he shakes hands with the wide-collared King of Rock’n’Roll, than the Declaration of Independence or snaps of the historic Moon landing. This brisk comedy-drama from director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) smartly taps into our enduring fascination with these 20th century icons and their improbable rendezvous.

The story begins with a restless Elvis (Michael Shannon) recruiting friend Jerry Schilling (Magic Mike’s Alex Pettyfer) as his would-be PR manager and jetting to Washington, D.C. on a whim to request a vanity title (Federal Agent at Large) from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Although Nixon (played superbly by Kevin Spacey in a smaller role) initially refuses to sit down with Elvis, he eventually relents following an appeal by his daughter.

Because the climactic collision between Elvis and Nixon is obviously the whole point of this film, the rest can’t help feeling like an extended prelude. But the protracted build-up is forgiveable because Shannon’s cool and mercurial take on the King is consistently watchable, and his eventual meeting with Nixon so entertaining. Overwhelmed by the Oval Office, Elvis pulls himself together with some brazen one-upmanship and charms the grisly politician into giving him what he wants. Elvis & Nixon is a deliberately frothy confection, more romp than biopic, but it makes you wonder if any of today’s rock stars could gain access to President Obama simply because they’re super-famous.