Movie Review: Elvis & Nixon

While we’re still under the spell of WONDER WOMAN, Hong Kong’s movie distributors are continuing to hold their bigger titles back for fear that they’ll get decimated at the box office, much like the dreadfully bad THE MUMMY was last week. In the interim, we’re getting some arthouse films, not that I’m complaining! This week’s film is ELVIS & NIXON, which premiered in April 2016 at the Tribeca Film Festival and reached Singapore’s and Thailand’s cinemas just one month later. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: If Hong Kong is supposed to be Asia’s World City, it’s doing a crappy job when it comes to movies.

ELVIS & NIXON is a re-enactment of sorts of the meeting that took place on the morning of December 21, 1970, in the Oval Office of the White House between the then US President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. The King of Rock was fed up with his family and the Colonel getting on his case about his lavish spending so, with just his American Express credit card in his pocket (as well as a couple of guns), he jumped on board a commercial flight from Memphis to Los Angeles to pick up his friend, Jerry Schilling, and head over to Washington, DC, to meet with Nixon. In reality, Presley went to DC first without Schilling before deciding to go west and bring Jerry along for his excellent adventure. The film, which is based on truth, takes a few liberties with the events as they occurred.

Elvis, we learn, was a collector of deputy badges. Over the years, he had received more than a few shiny gold stars from various law enforcement officials across the country but one badge remained elusive – the one from the Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs, the government office that is the forerunner of today’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Not that there really is such a badge but someone he knew had one (whether it was authentic or not is unknown) and he wanted one too. So, on the flight from Los Angeles to DC, Elvis penned a letter to Nixon on American Airlines stationery to ask the president to swear him in as an undercover federal “agent-at-large” for the BNDD. Elvis was opposed to the pervading drug culture (among other things) and he felt that his unique position could be useful in Nixon’s war on drugs. Ironically, Elvis was addicted to prescription medication at the time, though he saw his use of drugs to be completely different to that of people like the Beatles who were using LSD or others who were taking heroin or barbiturates. (Both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had died just a few months earlier as the result of a drug overdoses.) No sooner had the plane touched down (before dawn, according to Schilling in recent interviews), then the men went over to the White House where Elvis personally handed his letter over to the guards who were stationed at the gate. You can imagine how surreal that must have been!

A few hours later, Elvis was in the Oval Office shaking Nixon’s hand. What happened in between forms the bulk of the film, which was pieced together by the now ex-husband and wife writing team of Joey & Hanala Sagal and, interestingly, actor Cary Elwes (THE PRINCES BRIDE), through interviews with the people who were there that day including Schilling, Nixon aides Egil “Bud” Krogh and Dwight Chapin, and another Elvis friend, Sonny West. (Nixon also spoke about the meeting during a TV interview in the 1990’s.) Unfortunately, Nixon didn’t start using his now-infamous tape recording system until just a few months later so no audio record exists of the event. All that does exist is hearsay and some photographs taken by the official White House photographer. One of those photos is the most requested image from the US National Archives, beating out even the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

ELVIS & NIXON stars Michael Shannon (General Zod in the SUPERMAN franchise) and Kevin Spacey (AMERICAN BEAUTY) in the title roles. While Shannon looks more like an Elvis impersonator than The King himself, he does have the mannerisms and speech cadence down pat. In one scene at LAX, a couple of Elvis impersonators strike up a conversation with The King thinking he’s just one of them. I can’t imagine this really happening because Elvis’ face would have been too familiar but it makes for an amusing scene in the film. Spacey, on the other hand, does look a bit like Nixon and he is a master of voice modulation. Some critics have complained that he doesn’t sound or act enough like Nixon but I disagree. If Spacey would have been over the top, they would have complained that his performance was a caricature. I think they were looking for Spacey to hold his hands up in the air in a V sign and say “I am not a crook.” Alex Pettyfer (MAGIC MIKE) and Colin Hanks (TV’s ROSWELL) feature as Jerry Schilling and Bud Krogh, respectively, but the show is all Shannon’s and Spacey’s.

What was supposed to be a five-minute meeting between the two legends lasted almost an hour. Even adding in all the behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations that went on, the film is surprisingly short – 86 minutes in total – and it goes by very fast. The real Schilling and Krogh recalled that day in a talk hosted by the US National Archives a few years back. That event, which can be seen on YouTube, lasted just as long. It’s worth watching that video after you’ve seen ELVIS & NIXON because the men discuss a few things that happened that were sadly left out of the movie.

While it’s not a superb film, ELVIS & NIXON is a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. Go see it!

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