Monday, July 31, 2017

Elvis & Nixon

Director: Liza Johnson
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Ahna O' Reilly, Ashley Benson, Dylan Penn
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

On the morning of December 21, 1970, a meeting took place at the White House between two of the most important and controversial public figures of the 20th century. It created a moment immortalized in a legendary photograph that became the the National Archives' most requested image. Thankfully, Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon isn't exactly a movie about that, at least in the strictest sense. If it was, there's a chance we'd be exposed to a reality that's nowhere near as funny or subversively entertaining as what ends up on screen. And while we all probably could have lived without the disturbing knowledge that "The King" and the disgraced 37th President of the United States share an alarming amount in common, isn't it kind of strangely unsurprising? The casting would imply the film's a big joke, and while that's true to an extent, it's at least a really funny joke that also works as a deep dive into the complicated personalities of these two eccentric figures.

Clocking in at a breezy 86 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, focusing tightly on the immediate events leading up to this infamous meeting and the actual event itself, which definitely doesn't disappoint, thanks largely to the two immersive performances carrying it. This is one of those little footnotes in history that upon reflection signifies much more than it did at the time, with the film's strongest aspect being how well it conveys that. Everyone involved is so blissfully unaware of how simultaneously important and ridiculous this all this. It's hard watching without drawing parallels to current events, contemplating just how thin the line separating politics and celebrity has become. For better or worse, you could easily argue that this rarely discussed encounter helped pave the way, its implications still reverberating through the culture. 

It's 1970 and singer Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is enjoying somewhat of a career resurgence off the heels of his late '60's comeback special, his fame and public recognizability at an apex. But despite this enormous success, the problems currently facing America heavily weigh on him as he lounges in his palatial Graceland estate, joined at the hip by best friend and "Memphis Mafia" cohort Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and bodyguard Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville). Disturbed by the hippie movement and worried the drug culture is rapidly eating away at the minds of the era's youth, Elvis makes it his mission to get sworn in by President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as an undercover "agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

To accomplish his lofty goal, Presley will have to find a way to reach Nixon, and after showing up at the gates of the White House with a handwritten letter, his request eventually makes it into the hands of top administrative officials Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), Evan Peters and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, After initially brushing it off as a ridiculous joke, they soon recognize the obvious, very real opportunity the meeting presents for Nixon to overhaul his out-of-touch, old fashioned image, particularly with young southern voters. But getting the President on board is full of an entirely new set of challenges, culminating in an encounter for the ages as Elvis meets Nixon.

There's a reason the film is titled Elvis & Nixon and not Nixon & Elvis, as the script devotes a considerably larger amount of time to Presley. He's the one on the journey, he's the mind we're granted access to, and at times, it's a fairly strange place to be. Torn between his loyalty to and love for a profession that's afforded him so much and the discomfort of having strangers viewing him as "Elvis" 24/7, he sees a lot of himself in Nixon, who also came from humble beginnings and shares similar conservative values.

The casting of Michael Shannon, known for playing psychotic creeps and menacing weirdos, is unusual not only due to him lacking any physical resemblance to The King, but because the choice seems like it could be some kind of inside joke on audiences. If this were an all-out mindless comedy that might be true, but anyone truly familiar with Shannon knows just how much more he's capable of bringing to it. And he does.

Shannon really gets under Presley's skin during a period of his life where he really did come across as a disturbed eccentric, albeit a likable, well-meaning one. When Elvis is at first informed that the President has no desire to meet him, Presley's not insulted that Nixon doesn't want to meet the one and only "King of Rock n' Roll," but rather sad and disappointed as an American because he has some ideas to share and thinks and they'd be friends. The deflated look on Shannon's face is more akin to an overgrown child being told they won't be meeting Santa Claus than a spoiled celebrity not getting what he wants. It's a small but crucial example of one of many nuances the movie gets right.

Much of the comedy comes from those closest to the two men trying to control uncontrollable personalities since no one really has any idea what will happen when they meet. Nixon is portrayed as an insulated old man, so stubbornly grasping to traditional values it comes as little surprise he has no idea who Elvis Presley even is. That he may have in reality has no baring on the fact that this movie believably theorizing that he didn't is just perfect. It isn't even until his team have to use his daughter to get through to him that they're able to finally set the wheels in motion.

No stranger to playing the Commander-in-Chief on House of Cards, Kevin Spacey now gets to tackle a real one and his physical embodiment of Nixon's mannerisms, posture and way of speaking are frighteningly on point, even taking into account the great actors who have previously tackled the role. While he doesn't get the screen time Shannon does, he makes the absolute most of it, conveying the type of defiant personality that would eventually lead to his downfall. He definitely lived and worked in a bubble, and there's no getting around the distracting fact that Spacey's portrayal will draw inescapable comparisons to our current President.

Finding plenty of common ground in their mutual disdain of hippies, The Beatles, and communism, it was inevitable Elvis and Nixon would hit it off, their discussion as off-the-wall as you'd expect and then some. The rest of the characters are mere window dressing, as they should be, attempting and often failing to keep their bosses' worst tendencies in check. Like how Presley basically tries to sneak an arsenal of firearms into the Oval Office and the person most perplexed as to why that's not  permitted is Nixon himself.

While all the characters' quirks are on full display in the eventual encounter, this semi-biographical account still somehow avoids feeling like a parody because it has genuine affection for two otherwise good men who each had their personality flaws magnified by the pressures of the spotlight. Under different circumstances, maybe both would have been regarded a bit differently, and perhaps even deserve to be. Elvis & Nixon zeroes in on that to become a fun, engaging trip back in time that's as straightforward and direct as the meeting itself.