This well conceived parody about the art of pandering to celebrities and politicians and the self-entitlement that is inherent in both groups is subtly clever and funny. Apparently this is the second film of the rather bizarre but real encounter between President Nixon and Elvis Presley, and just as interesting is the fact that the picture taken of the two on that occasion is the photograph most often requested from the National Archives. (The previous film, called a “mockumentary” and entitled Elvis Meets Nixon, was directed by Allan Arkush and released in 1997. I didn’t see that film, but it looks like maybe both are similar in their capturing the essence of the encounter. For some reason I do not know of, the current film is said to be the first account of the meeting, disregarding the previous film.)
The current Elvis & Nixon captures the American idolization of celebrities, giving it a ‘70’s flare with screeching young females ready to throw themselves at Elvis’ feet at the mere mention of his name. But they’re not the only ones—a President’s aide can be just as enthralled, and come up with “politically reasonable”, convincing arguments as to why the President should meet with him. The President is skeptical, and initially refuses; but when he learns that he can impress his daughter Julie, he relents.
Other arguments for the meeting (made principally by Elvis) appeal to Nixon’s sense that the Communists are behind the protest movements against the Viet Nam War and drug use among the “Lefties.” It is with a sense of purpose that Elvis wants to “infiltrate” their organizations and be the one to catch them in illegal acts. His arguments for this include the fact that as an actor he is an expert in costume and disguise(!).
In his appeal to Nixon’s suspicious nature and his pandering to his vanity, Elvis pulls off something few would deem probable. Badges mean a lot to Elvis (and he collects them, showing his Memphis Sheriff’s badge for his identification at airports, etc.), and he wants one from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Illustrating/lampooning how that administration found it so easy to break the rule of law, Elvis was indeed given the badge. (Not a spoiler; it’s in the National Archives.)
The writers (Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes) and director (Leza Johnson) should be credited with making an informed, entertaining film that is not just a parody of the main characters, but as well a look at American culture, politics and government, some of which still holds true today. Just like back then, we get the impression that the American populace and some politicians can be drawn in with facile arguments that single out group(s) to be the “enemy”… and that the rule of law is not necessarily something to be taken seriously in all circumstances.
Without the two main actors (Spacey as Nixon and Shannon as Presley), who are chameleon in their abilities, this film probably could not have been so successful. It’s uncanny to watch each of them portray their characters’ gestures, voices, and manners—exactly as those of us from the ‘70’s recall seeing on television. Supporting actors Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, and Tracy Letts also deserve their due in making this a strange but believable film.
A film not so distant from current cultural and political realities.
Grade: B+ By Donna R. Copeland