Politics and Elvis rarely share the same sentence. Maybe even less so Watergate and Elvis. Yet Liza Johnson’s newest tongue-and-cheek comedy “Elvis & Nixon” collides West Wing with rock and roll in a playful, fresh way. Centered around the most sought after picture in National Archives, the film tells the story of the secret 1970 meeting between Elvis Presley and President Nixon in the White House.
Inspired by Elvis’ desire to fix ‘70s drug culture by becoming a “Federal Agent at Large,” Johnson brings together two of the largest figures of the ‘70s in a light jest of image and reputation. The story, of course, foreshadows the administration’s downfall during Watergate, yet it mostly doesn’t concern itself with such dirtiness. Instead, “Elvis & Nixon” blows up a small moment, this ludicrous meeting, to revel in the absurdity of how two cultural icons try to meet each other like normal people.
The film begins as Elvis watches the news from his home in Graceland, Tenn. Infuriated by the violence he sees, he convinces a Paramount friend Alex (Alex Pettyfer) and sidekick Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) to fly to DC. But even for Elvis, it’s not that easy to meet a President. The King schmoozes every female airline attendant, assistant, and secretary as everyone falls over him without laughing at his ridiculous request.
Kevin Spacey fits right in as Nixon, yet, like the rest of the film, his portrayal is rather goofy, even stereotypical. The movie practically points to its fake ‘70s hair-dos, and the DC sets clearly from an LA studio add to its mockery of rigid, political security. Elvis bypasses Secret Service with a scribbled, American Airlines napkin note, just as Nixon’s trench-coated toadies Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) meet Elvis’ groupies in a parking garage reminiscent of mafia movies.
Johnson especially jeers a false image of security as each icon must prepare to meet the other in person. Elvis must navigate Nixon’s ridiculous M&M and Dr. Pepper protocol, just as Krogh and Chapin must allow Elvis to bring a Colt .45 into the White House as a gift. Krogh even jokes at one point that the “Secret Service can be a bit overzealous sometimes,” as if directly predicting his own corruption soon to come in Watergate. Nixon participates in the circus too, yelling at Chapin to just “bend the rules” or calling Kogh a “f****** potted plant” to get a glass for his Dr. Pepper. It is surprising how much the film encourages you to sympathize with Elvis’ ridiculous request, and how fun everything feels despite the huge deaths that await both men after the world of the film ends.
Aside from jokes about Nixon’s needing an Elvis bio or not having the looks of a Kennedy, the film does briefly touch on fame. Elvis ironically laments that nobody can see his real self as he prepares his hair and jewelry, but the film prioritizes humor over more serious themes. This existential speech or Kogh’s explanation that nobody in the administration stays married remain secondary to the main act: two unlikely figures in need of each other. “Elvis & Nixon” feels like its meant for Generation X and older, as they lived through these events, but millennials and those politically fluent can easily access Johnson’s playful humor. The film does feel long at points, stretching barely to 86 minutes, but is delightful in the way it lets go of larger, political questions or meaning and just has a lot of fun.
“Elvis & Nixon” is playing at various times throughout the week at Kimball’s and Tinseltown. As this is the last column for 2016, thank you so much for reading, and enjoy the summer movies! I am especially looking forward to the dark comedy about love, “The Lobster,” a Sundance favorite set to release May 13, so be sure to look out for that.