In 2016, Liza Johnston brought us this insight into two of the biggest names in American history; Lee reviews Elvis & Nixon.
Is it fair to judge a film against its missed opportunities? To dictate what you imagine a movie to be like, rather than what it is like? Perhaps Elvis & Nixon was always meant to be this way: a quirky but sober look at two real life people who, in the shadow of the characters they play, each have a sentimental and frail core and come to discover a little about that core when they meet a character as brash and as brazen as themselves. That’s by no means a terrible premise, and it’s not poorly handled either, but when you look at the side narratives, the inner-monologues and the sheer egotistic grandeur of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon themselves, not to mention the fact that most of the happenings of this actual meeting were never disclosed or recorded, this should have been carte blanche to go full conspiracy and make a comedy that isn’t just a little humorous but a full-on surreal experience that truly reflects the complex nature of these men through some rollicking adventure of self-discovery.
And perhaps that’s projecting, and perhaps that’s unfair, but then we must look at the movie we did get and question whether it was truly that interesting a ride to begin with. While Elvis is a sympathetic character here, immersed perfectly in all his 1970s incoherence by Michael Shannon, and there is something of an underlying drama/character think-piece in the narrative, the main joke that the film wants to make is “look, it’s Elvis.” The reactions of the many bit characters can be funny, it does show off how big he would have been at this time and so makes for some useful insight into that time period, but it is just a joke, played for laughs with reactions shots and dialogue long after Elvis uses the people to get his way, and ultimately the joke stops being funny well before the film is done using it.
Meanwhile, Nixon gets nearly none of the same introspection and effort Elvis gets; he has kids, he likes karate, and he pines for his youth and feels burdened by the looks of others. That information is contained in one short conversation he has with Colin Hank’s character before he meets Elvis, a set-up for the meeting to come, and that’s that. It’s a shame, given Kevin Spacey’s excellent take on the man, that we don’t see him outside the office or with anyone who means anything to him; he’s played more as Elvis’ objective rather than peer and potential rival, and that devalues a little of the sentiment that these two men have an equal struggle in maintaining their façade.
Side stories like Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ confident who learns to go his own path, and the awkward humour of Sonny West, a character who takes advantage of Elvis’ fame for sex and ends up at the White House, are intriguing but unnecessary and simply try to add a more human element to a character study without much relevance other than to study the company Elvis kept at the time.
Direction is perfectly capable and the soundtrack insists subtly that Elvis wasn’t the sound anymore and that the intentions of Nixon’s advisors to make him into an anti-drug spokesperson would have fallen on deaf ears as the times had moved on to the funk and soul of the early 70s; it’s all fine, and works with the sober angle the story wanted to take, but it’s not going to mean much to those who don’t already know a little about the time period.
And even then, those interested would probably benefit from a little imagination. These are two of the greatest personalities the United States have ever produced, rendered here in a polite sit-down and surrounded by B-plots. It’s fun, in a quaint sort of way, maybe even interesting to imagine the real-life implications of such a meeting, but the possibilities far outnumber the realities in this case and if ever there were an excuse to take advantage of a story that nobody knows, this should be it.