It sometimes happens; you hear of a real-life event so bizarre in its telling that upon completion you’re only response is to raise both eyebrows and state, you can’t write this stuff.
When you walk out of Elvis & Nixon, the new comedy/drama from director Liza Johnson, you’ll be stating the same thing; you can’t write this. Except, you can. It was written in a book by lawyer and White House administrator Bud Krogh called The Day Elvis Met Nixon, and even though the film doesn’t credit Krogh’s account as its official source, once you see the film, you may want to read it, just to go over a couple of things. Did it happen like this? With some movie embellishment and a little imagination, evidently, it did.
It’s 1971, and Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) has had it with all the war, the crimes and all of those bleeding heart liberal college students on drugs that he sees everyday on the TV news. Enough is enough, he thinks while watching the country’s woes on his many TV screens. There’re only two things Elvis can do. First, he can take out one of his many shiny pistols and shoot the TV, which he does; second, he can drop everything and fly to D.C. for a meeting with the President and offer his help to get the country back on track, which he also does.
Accompanied by his friend and advisor Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and the head of his personal security, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), Elvis flies to Washington. His intention is to meet President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and to offer his services as a Federal undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. More importantly, he wants a federal badge and to be known as a Federal-Agent-At-Large, a position that doesn’t actually exist, but it sounds good to Elvis. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t offer to help?” the Vegas singer asks.
Of course, even someone as popular and as well-known as Elvis Presley can’t just walk into the White House and hang out with the President of the United States, even though the singer thinks he can. Stopped at the gate by government security, Elvis hands the guard a rambling letter for the president, one that he wrote on the plane. It ends with, “I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.” When the guard takes the letter and refers to the superstar by his real name, Elvis corrects him. “Call me Mr. Burrows,” he insists. “I’m undercover.”
It takes a while for the meeting to be arranged. Elvis, Jerry and Sonny are forced to linger at their hotel while waiting for a call. And then it comes. Even though an impromptu meeting will interfere with the President’s nap time, permission is granted, and Elvis, in full Vegas gear – sun glasses, black, high-collard shirt and that over-sized gold belt buckle that looked like he once won a wrestling championship, but still undercover as a Mr. Burrows – enters the White House. “Looks a little like my place,” he remarks.
At this time in his troubled presidency, Nixon hadn’t begun the practice of secretly recording conversations in the Oval Office, so those odd moments of privacy with Elvis are nowhere on tape. From eye-witness accounts, screenwriters Joey and Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes have pieced together how events possibly unfolded behind closed doors. The strength is that it’s all played straight. Both Elvis and the President were so larger than life that no colorful character embellishment in a dead-pan delivered comedy like this is required. The whole thing is naturally funny.
Moments before the meeting, Nixon is briefed on Presley’s background. When told that Elvis knows karate, the President asks his advisor, “Do you think I could take him?” And later, when the President shows the singer around the Oval Office, he proudly presents his piece of authentic moon rock in a glass display given to him personally from, “…a great American, Buzz Aldrin,” Elvis responds with, “That’s cool, man. Buzz sent me one, too.” Ordinarily, the comic absurdity of both of those lines would be questionable if presented in any other story purporting to be based on a real event. However, knowing what we know of these two men, as funny as those lines are, you have no trouble in accepting that what you’re hearing could well have been said, in the same way you have no trouble accepting that Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey are playing Elvis and Nixon respectively, even though they’re fooling no one and hardly look like them.
Running at a scant 86 minutes, Elvis & Nixon is an unexpected though hugely entertaining recreation of a largely unknown but real event that was supposed to be a secret, and it’s approached in the only way it can be approached – without a note of irony, and that makes it all the funnier.
The official White House picture of Elvis shaking hands with the President – the one that Elvis requested not to be taken because he considered himself to be there undercover – is said to be the most requested photograph in the National Archives. And during the closing credits that lists what happened to these people, we learn that Nixon’s administrator, Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) the man who oversaw the meeting and wrote the book on this unusual account, was later arrested and imprisoned for overseeing the Watergate break-in. He then went on to become a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress teaching Ethics and Leadership. Really. You can’t write this stuff.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 86 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)