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Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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One O’Clock, Two O’Clock, White House Rock

In December 1970, the most popular rock n’roller on the planet decided that the American way of life was going down the drain and blamed the Beatles, drugs and the Black Panthers. He hand-delivered to the White House a letter to the President of the United States, asking to be sworn a Federal Agent at Large to help fight this trifecta undercover and it promptly happened thanks to a quick call to the FBI director. If for you this elevator pitch is pushing the envelope too far, think twice: it actually happened and there are pictures to prove it, which actually are the most requested documents for consultation in the whole US National Archives. The head of FBI was J. Edgar Hoover. The President was Richard Nixon. The third man was the King, Elvis Presley, and he had a super power: the Autograph.

One doesn’t need to scrap one’s head for too long to figure out what interested the writers (Joey, himself an Elvis impersonator, and Hanala Segal) in such a subject. An odd couple so incongruous that they could as well come from different planets, the comedy of fame clashing with the comedy of politics, the utter ridiculousness of both sides’ agenda (gaining in appeal and humanity while “not giving a fuck about the youth vote” for one, “infiltrating the Rolling Stones or maybe The Grateful Dead” for the other), all make for a meaty subject matter which could have, in less capable hands, be all sting and sarcasm. But they are fond of their characters and chose to tap their humanity instead of their delusions of grandeur, and humour, omnipresent in their movie, is always sympathetic, if loaded with a healthy dose of irony. The poster offers “the meeting of two of the greatest recording artists in history”, which is quite succulent.

The first third of the movie deals with the impossibility of the meeting, the second with its difficulty and the third with the meeting itself. Meeting the Commander in Chief is no given even for Presley: “We do not expect any royalty today”, answers Nixon’s advisor when informed the King is at the door. A couple of autographs to the right kids and the promise of a photo shoot later, he’s in. What was supposed to be a five minutes meet and greet lasts much more as the two men discover themselves closer than they thought. Ingenuously, what brings them together after a first round of pissing contest is childhood and self-doubt.

Presley (Michael Shannon, not even close to the rockabilly cherub Elvis still was in 70, but impressively conveying his charisma and his innate sadness) is an icon, maybe the most loved man in America. His feral years are well behind him though, and he has lost touch with who he is, or was, enshrined as he is in clothes, jewelry and adoration. He only trusts his two oldest friends, Jerry and Sonny (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville, good at playing the rock and the roll, respectively). The two scenes where his vulnerability shows are great; without them Elvis would be some kind of Yoda, imbued with so much self-confidence and poise that it would be difficult to respond to him in any other way than worship. When he meets Nixon and finds a level ground with him, he’s a kid for a while, then regain his composure and departs quite curtly. It is a perilous exercise of tightrope and it works.

Kevin Spacey is wonderful as Nixon. It’s almost scary, a short while after watching him as President Underwood in House of Cards, to see him inhabiting the Oval Office in such a completely different fashion. The two men have nothing in common, Nixon’s cynicism being routed in his hate for what the “genetic lottery” has attributed him. “I’m not looking like a Kennedy”, he says in a moment which is both acerbic and surprisingly fragile. Never Underwood would have these thoughts, or those mimics, including this infectious jubilation when Presley calls him “a cool cat”, much to the dismay of his two advisers, Chapin (Evan Peters, too juvenile for the role) and Krogh (Colin Hanks, perfect). The fact that the screenplay takes the trouble of building fully fleshed characters in both camps is highly commendable.

One has some reservations about the film but they are of the minor kind. The karate scene (which Shannon judged “in poor taste”) might be ill advised, even though Spacey suddenly unleashes an animosity that is both scary and poignant. The Watergate foreshadowing of the parking meeting is a bit on your face. Budget limitations show at times. But in any scene Elvis is in, there is always a reaction from passers-by, and those “Oh my God!” moments are not only fun to watch but the mark of attention to detail. And for our devoted followers, there’s even a “What’s in the box” moment. What’s not to like?

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