- by Jeff Beck
Elvis & Nixon: A Pair of Great Performances Almost Saves an Intriguing Film (Blu-ray)
In December of 1970, one of the most unusual and unlikely meetings took place between the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, and then-president, Richard Nixon. While the topics that were discussed are somewhat known, there is no transcript of what was actually said or done at this meeting, other than the fact that The King gave The President a gift, some autographs were signed, and one of the most infamous photographs in American history was taken (now the single most requested photo in the National Archives). Oh, to be a fly on the wall during that encounter! One can only imagine how The King, used to the lavish lifestyle of an extremely successful musician, conducted himself in front of the leader of the free world, but imagine is just what a group of filmmakers did. The result is “Elvis & Nixon,” a film that attempts to fill in the gaps that very few know about, or in some cases, gaps that no one left alive knows the details of.
The film starts on that seemingly normal day back in 1970, with Elvis (Michael Shannon) suddenly having the idea of wanting to go visit the President of the United States. However, first he travels to Los Angeles to collect his long-time friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who acts as his public relations person. Upon arriving in DC, Elvis makes a bold move by strolling up to a guard in front of the White House and presenting him with a hand-written letter to give to President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in which he requests a meeting. At first, The President is utterly opposed to it, but after some quick thinking from Jerry, Nixon’s staff is able to talk him into it thanks to the promise of an autograph for one of The President’s daughters. We’ve already learned that Elvis wants to obtain a badge and become an undercover federal agent for the narcotics bureau, but that’s only the beginning of the surreal experience that occurs when these two personalities finally encounter one another.
The idea behind “Elvis & Nixon” is a fascinating one. Who wouldn’t want to know what Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon said to each other in such a meeting, especially when we know some of the topics that were discussed? Just thinking about how two people of such different spheres would react to the other would be enough to pull anyone in. The challenge for such a film becomes how to turn that core element into a feature and have it be entertaining enough to warrant the treatment.
Unfortunately, this is where the project hits its major stumbling block. The film starts off well enough, with Elvis suddenly getting the seemingly-random idea to go to DC and meet with Nixon about his plan to become an agent at-large, but the entire process of trying to arrange the meeting takes up so much of the film’s runtime that it merely leaves you wondering when you’re finally going to get to the inevitable scene between the two.
That’s not to say that this part of the film isn’t interesting at all. The back and forth of trying to talk Nixon into taking the meeting in the first place provides a few compelling scenes, making us wonder what will be the final straw to make him agree (you would think that Elvis’ popularity among all demographics of voters would be enough, but no). And, of course, there’s the amusingly-dry reveal of Elvis’ purpose in meeting Nixon, as told to the head of the narcotics bureau. It all sounds perfectly normal and rational to him, and it ends up sounding the same to us. It’s the kind of thing that one would swear is completely made up, that is, until you realize that it has been documented by those involved.
However, someone watching a film about the infamous meeting of these two doesn’t want to spend an hour out of 80 minutes watching what is merely set-up for the main course. They want to see what the film promises within a reasonable timeframe instead of being teased with the prospect for such a long time. Granted, there might not have been any other way to stretch the film out to feature-length, but the filmmakers should have realized that it was going to make the project suffer for it.
When we do finally get these two in the same room, it’s a true treat to behold. It’s just as bizarre, awkward, and hysterical an experience as you’re hoping it’s going to be. For starters, Elvis has to be briefed on the proper protocol for his meeting with Nixon (and in a strange twist, Nixon also gets briefed about what to expect with Elvis), but with The King being The King, he decides to break just about all of the rules told to him, only adding to the amusement factor for this entire surreal encounter. This is not even to mention the brazen attitude with which he does it, or the sheer ridiculous and absurd nature of his request to be an undercover agent. Simply trying to imagine one of the most famous people in the world at the time trying to go undercover is enough to bring a smile to your face.
Of course, this entire section of the film wouldn’t work without the committed performances of the two incredible leads: Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon and two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. One of the main dangers in making such a film is that whoever was chosen to play these parts might think that they need to go big and flashy to bring out their respective character, especially for Elvis (who has plenty of impersonators who do just that). However, Shannon gives a very understated performance that is far more effective for its subtleties, turning Elvis into an actual person instead of a character. Likewise, Spacey doesn’t give us the classic overemphasized Nixon, but rather a personable interpretation that too brings the role more down to Earth. Both actors have this phenomenal ability to just melt away into their parts, going so far as to make you forget that its them in the first place, which I’ve always considered to be the mark of a truly special performance.
This is what makes it a shame that the film wasn’t structured a little better. If the filmmakers had managed to get to the point faster instead of including so many unnecessary delays then the story would have flowed in a much more acceptable manner. Again, this was a great idea for a film, one that has no doubt peaked the curiosity of many who have wondered about that meeting back in 1970, but the execution here is just a little off the mark. Only a little though, for the meeting itself and the performances do a lot to make up for the lagging structure of the film. But talking about the film on the whole, it’s just not quite enough.
“Elvis & Nixon” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The picture remains perfectly clear and sharp throughout the presentation, allowing you to see all of the incredible detail that went into the ‘70s production design. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and soundtrack in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given top-notch treatment that leaves no room for complaints.
Commentary with Director Liza Johnson and Jerry Schilling: An intriguing track that provides a lot of informative tidbits about the making of the film.
Crazy But True (3 Minutes): A very brief featurette that features snippets of interviews with the cast and crew in which they discuss the film.
“Elvis & Nixon” features a pair of great performances from Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, in addition to a fantastic final act, but the structure of the film that delays the meeting between the titular two until nearly the end does a little too much harm on the whole. With some editing to the first two acts that would allow it to get to the point sooner, the film would have worked better, for it’s usually not a good idea to keep the audience waiting too long for what they’ve come to see. The film certainly does have its amusing moments throughout, but overall, you just can’t help feeling that it was stretched out a bit too much.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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