Film in Review: Elvis & Nixon

About to board a flight to L.A., Elvis approaches an airport ticket clerk. Ecstatic, the clerk exclaims how she had dreamt of this moment for years. Elvis, nodding, says “It’s good to hold on to your dreams.”

Michael Shannon’s portrayal of the king of rock ’n’ roll in Elvis & Nixon is downright revelatory and worth the price of admission alone. More than simple gimmicky impersonation, Shannon brings a sensitive and mysterious touch to who, at one time, was the most famous person alive. He’s got that “loosey-goosey” walk and swagger, filled with determination and confidence when entering any room. However, there is also a quiet sadness and an air of unknown intent. He’s so one of a kind that even he feels uncomfortable in his own skin. It’s a self-embarrassed awkwardness and vulnerability that gets at the heart of this man.

Elvis & Nixon takes place over the course of a day or two, kicking off with what seems to be a spur of the moment idea: to become an “agent at large” for the federal government. Elvis was at home in Graceland, twirling his gun, watching multiple TV screens at the same time, when he decided to journey to Washington D.C. This is the kind of behavior that a supervillain would exhibit, but in the context of this celebrity, it shows what could be boredom or what might be a genuine concern for the world. Or both.

It’s difficult to determine what his endgame really is, as honestly, he may not want a badge for the reasons he gives. Sure, he wants to be taken seriously (as he states at one point), but he does so in a huff that could’ve been for show. Heck, most of his public appearances in the film are show-offy. It’s in hotel rooms and hallways when he’s at his most real, talking to friends and being grateful for them. It’s when meeting fans and officials that he speaks in zen-like charismatic and homespun terminology being both personal and allusive.

His eventual appointment with President Nixon is a calamity of a culture clash, though as gentlemanly as possible for two such egos. While the movie may be a very funny romp, it’s also quite speculative, thinking on what this event meant to both men and the era. Where Elvis is genuine and genuinely mysterious, Nixon is obvious and obviously annoyed. Kevin Spacey does a fine job as the grumpy curmudgeon who couldn’t care less about what other people think. Of course, he shares this sensibility with Elvis, but in a different way. Elvis is a free spirit; Nixon is an ass. Both men are just being themselves, with facades masking their real identities, but only in one instance is this sad and empathetic, and that’s with Elvis. Nixon is still human, but here, is more of a tool — literally and figuratively.

This strange occurrence made for one of the most famous photos ever, and ironically, became exactly what Elvis and Nixon were and remain: a product. A product of the times, of themselves and of what Americans wanted from their positions. From a celebrity and from a President. Someone to love, someone to hate, coming together in a dumbfounding get-together. Pop culture demands a lot.

Elvis & Nixon is a wonderful “what happened?” time capsule comedy filled with performance driven dramatics. Michael Shannon is the highlight here, elevating the page and scenario to humorous and sentimental brilliance. Stranger than fiction, the film is both a love letter and a search for meaning. This was an event worth over analyzing, even psychoanalyzing. And, through the business of situational comedy and depth of character, achieves its investigative goals.

We get the idea as to who these men were, but as to what their meeting really meant? Keep dreaming.


Originally published at digbr.com on April 27, 2016.

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