On December 21, 1970, one of the most famous men in America wrote and hand-delivered a letter to another of the most famous men in America. “Dear Mr. President,” Elvis Presley began. “First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it the establishment. I call it America and I love it...
“Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel...I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.” The letter served as prelude to an encounter that has fascinated Americans since 1972, when the secret meeting between Elvis and President Richard Milhous Nixon was made public by the Washington Post. Since then, the incident has been a well-received Showtime telefilm (1997’s Elvis Meets Nixon) and a 2013 Drunk History segment. Recently the tale got the deluxe treatment: in Elvis & Nixon, Oscar nominee Michael Shannon plays the former and Oscar winner Kevin Spacey plays the latter.
As the new film points out, the famous photo of Nixon shaking hands with Elvis is the most requested photo in the National Archives (and prints and posters of it, including one emblazoned “THE PRESIDENT AND THE KING,” continue to sell well). The fascination continues with the new film, directed by Liza Johnson and written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes, star of The Princess Bride). It’s not hard to understand why: each on his own is a riveting, tragicomic figure, and the curiosity of what passed between them can hardly be contained.
As it happens, their transaction occurred because each man had something to gain in terms of image or self-image. Though the meeting was, per Elvis, to remain secret, Nixon cannily supposed he could leverage it some way, somehow for credibility with young people (his least loyal constituency), while Elvis wished to shore up his self-importance as a patriot eager to serve as a "Federal Agent at Large" for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (a non-existent position he hoped would bookend his Army stint). It’s a story of great power and great delusion, of the absurdities of politics and the strange effects and arguably undue reach of celebrity.
These potentially heady themes are really beside the point of a movie that’s a hoot and knows it. Just try to keep a straight face as Elvis proves his conservative bona fides by remarking to Nixon, “Take that Woodstock, for example. What the heck was that?” While hewing closely to the known facts oft recounted by Elvis’s “Memphis Mafia” members Jerry Schilling (played here by Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), Elvis & Nixon proves to be fleet, funny and occasionally poignant as Elvis simultaneously pursues a federal badge and desires to be seen as “the real Elvis. A person.” (Kudos, too, to the rest of the supporting cast, including Colin Hanks and Evan Peters as Nixon’s aides and Tracy Letts as a befuddled BNDD director.)
Shannon could hardly be a less likely choice to play the King, but his powerful presence and towering talent carry the day, and Spacey makes one of his subtlest “impressions” in a full-fledged performance of a president reluctant to give up his nap hour but unexpectedly engaged by this immensely successful good ol’ boy, a gun lover and a karate practitioner (not to mention an amateur numerologist). The White House tour has never been so entertaining.