'Elvis & Nixon' and Histories and Fates Captured in a Photo

Even as this film gets bogged down in jokes and speculations, it makes the point that performance is its own kind of truth.

Elvis & Nixon

Director: Liza Johnson
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts
Rated: R
Studio: Bleecker Street, Amazon Studios
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-04-22 (General release)
UK date: 2016-06-24 (General release)

"This country needs me, man." It's December 1970 and Elvis (Michael Shannon) has been watching TV. After seeing so much war and crime and riots on the multiple screens in his rec room, he feels a calling. "Drugs, too," he tells Jerry (Alex Pettyfer). "What kind of man would I be if I didn't offer to help?"

Jerry's skeptical at the start of Elvis & Nixon, just as you might be, but still, he agrees to go with his old friend to Washington DC, where Elvis means to deliver a letter to President Nixon. "I want to get a badge," Elvis says, a federal badge that will allow him to "go undercover" as a “federal agent at large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Jerry has a job and a fiancée, Charlotte (Sky Ferreira), obligations he means to fulfill, and yet when Elvis calls from the airport in Memphis, detained for carrying sidearms, he can't say no. Neither can the airport security guard, who brings in his kids to pose for photos with his detainee ("Anything for law enforcement," says the King). Soon enough, Elvis and Jerry are at the White House gate, letter in hand. Here the guards are less willing to let him pass, and so the visitors return to their hotel to wait.

You know Elvis will get in, of course, owing to the famous photo of him meeting Nixon. Between Elvis shooting his TV set in Memphis and Elvis arriving in the Oval Office with a gift for Nixon (played here by Kevin Spacey), that is, a World War II-era Colt pistol, the film provides a series of antics, set in the White House and wherever Elvis goes in DC. Imagining what might have gone on as the president's people and the King's people came up with ways and reasons for the meeting to happen, these bits don't provide much insight regarding history or historical figures. Rather, they remind you that history is always, also, fantasy.

Here, the film submits, that fantasy is concocted and acted out by the performers at its center. Certainly, Nixon and Elvis are renowned for their elaborate self-constructions, their self-understandings -- or self-delusions -- as public personas, objects of desire and disparagement, reflections of their times. The movie manages this part of its story, the part that allows you a healthy distance from the shenanigans, through various supporting figures, observers of Elvis' love of donuts or the effects he has on assorted female office workers, Nixon's eccentricities or bumblings.

Nixon has minions, of course, including Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), men who do their best to cajole or even trick their boss into doing what they believe is best. What a great way to attract the youth vote, Bud and Dwight tell each other, sitting in their tiny office in their ties and dress shirts, even as you can see they have no idea about any such thing.

Equally clueless, Jerry serves as your most obvious surrogate, doubting Elvis' view of himself as savior, a sometimes sentimental, sometimes comic sounding board who's disinclined to renounce his boss or even set him straight. Instead, Jerry works out logistics and tells Elvis he's right, all the way up to the point when they stand together in the hotel bathroom, mirrors creating multiple reflections as Elvis worries he's lost track of himself. But, he insists -- doing his best to seduce his friend and solicit his help, again -- Jerry knows "the real Elvis, the person".

Jerry's expression here suggests that he's less sure about what he knows, and this reminds you of what's going on here. Even as the movie gets bogged down in jokes and speculations, it makes the point that performance is its own kind of truth, in history and elsewhere. As Elvis or Jerry, or Shannon or Pettyfer, seduce you or solicit a response, visceral or intellectual, sympathetic or resistant, the exchange between art and consumer is its own story.

The most potent version of that exchange in Elvis & Nixon remains the photo, the one the movie reenacts and the one you already know. Elvis puts on his shiny big belt and his gaudy jacket-like-a-cape, and he and Jerry head to the Oval Office, where the film's parallel plots converge. Here, as the two celebrities sit down, mutually appreciating each other's many fictions. They both "started from nothing", Nixon says. Elvis nods. And again, their realities are transformed, their histories revised.

21 December 1970

That Elvis or Nixon might believe his own mythology, the stories told him by his yes men, can't be surprising. Neither is the movie's underlining of their hypocrisies, whether by the federal agent-wannabe Elvis' own drug use or Nixon's wide-ranging deceptions. You're certainly aware of the fates lurking for each man, soon after the photo. Thus, the movie leaves you to contemplate such extra-textual details, and their complicated combinations of truths and fictions.







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