Elvis & Nixon (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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In 1970, Elvis got bored of his wife and father complaining about how much money he was spending, so he decided to go to Washington D.C. to get a Federal Narcotics badge.  Nixon, struggling to connect with the American youth, trusts his aides that this is an okay idea.  Liza Johnson directs Elvis & Nixon, with the screenplay written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, and stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.

In addition to providing whichever partisan slant you subscribe to, the major news networks provide the exciting alternative to actual governance.  Watch a few hours of C-SPAN and you'll see that the day-to-day actions of running the government boil down to a lot of bookkeeping.  That's not a bad thing, and while the fistfights in other governments might be good for intrigue they're bad for healthy functioning.  Keeping this in mind, Elvis & Nixon is more accurate to how the government really works than any number of political dramas.

I can't say I was expecting Elvis & Nixon to be so dry I felt the need for an IV drip at one point.  But I can't say it was very entertaining either.  Big surprise all things considered as Michael Shannon, playing the "king of rock and roll", and Kevin Spacey, getting to play the President whose scheming is surely felt in House of Cards, are both actors who often swing for the fences.  The shock relative to Elvis & Nixon is they both play their roles relatively straight and there's little wiggle room to ham it up.

This is about as exciting as the visuals get for Elvis & Nixon.

Director Liza Johnson doesn't do anything special with the material and she's earned a begrudging respect from me by playing the material without any kind of shenanigans.  She shows Elvis and Nixon both in a way that precludes any kind of mythologizing.  Elvis is so deadened to his emotions at this point in his career that he's not even recognizable to impersonators, and I like how Johnson emphasizes Elvis' loneliness by making his world one of late night flights with rambling conversations.  Nixon hadn't fully committed to his corruption at this point and is a beleaguered professional who Johnson never shows outside of the Oval Office.

They're both lonely people and their story isn't one of a friendship blossoming over a shared love of the country.  The screenplay, similarly understated, makes a point not to allow either man the opportunity to grandstand.  Both have their handlers and when they finally meet it's their shared paranoia of the press that gives them their sole moment of connection.  The small touches, like a conversation between Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) and Egil (Colin Hanks) where they talk about the isolation they feel in their lines of work, keep the periphery a bit alive as the titular conversation partners roll on.

Elvis and Nixon were both pampered to the point of thinking themselves invincible.  Other nice touches critique both for building their power on the backs of others.  Black customers at a pastry bar are having none of Elvis' pretension to their culture with one woman yelling, "Original my ass," about Elvis (maybe she's a Sister Rosetta Tharpe fan - good on her either way) and another man mocking the way Elvis dresses as a pale imitation of black style.  Never forget, for all the records and the fame, Elvis wouldn't have existed without the decades of black musicians he opted to steal from when he started out.  Nixon is a high-power reflection of this, moaning about how foreigners lack, "national character," because he learns a few phrases in another language and they don't.

Both disgraced themselves in the long run but you wouldn't know it watching Elvis & Nixon.  Johnson avoids any kind of heavy-handed foreshadowing as it would go against the bare bones approach of the narrative.  That also means it's damn tedious to watch for long stretches as the reality of their meeting was just a series of boring coincidences.  There's communicating a sense of loneliness and then there's sitting down to watch bureaucratic wheels turn slowly and the White House, Elvis' traveling entourage, different government buildings - all of them are curiously empty.  Johnson's occasional success with the former in Elvis' late-night travels doesn't jive with the rest of the movie, where we watch daytime grunts whose job involves planning the President's day and whose voices never rise above library volume.  Elvis & Nixon, in another dubious success, is about 85% the cinematic equivalent of watching C-SPAN.

Kevin Spacey is no Philip Baker Hall and Elvis & Nixon is no Secret Honor, but Spacey does a good job with Tricky Dick in the limited time he has to work with.

Shannon's Elvis is one of the most bizarre portrayals I've seen.  He's all whispered requests in a high pitch that recalls Michael Jackson, a different king, than the hip shakin' crooner.  Considering how Elvis looks in the photograph this is likely another moment of art reproducing life instead of commenting on it.  Again - respectable - but not that entertaining.  Spacey, for his part, does a great job with Nixon by keying into Tricky Dick's low-grade anxiety.  Hanks bewildered reaction to Spacey grunting out, "Do you think I could take him?" is one time Johnson's bone dry approach meets Spacey's finely tuned anxiety for a decent laugh.

Someone out there with a sense of humor far more dry than my own might have a new favorite comedy, and Elvis & Nixon isn't a bad flick.  It's that the one thing that makes it different - the lack of drama in this slice of history - isn't worth much when reproduced.  So Elvis & Nixon ends as its inspiration did - a curious memento of American history that is more interesting in the absurdity of a few seconds than sitting down to explain how it happened.

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Elvis & Nixon (2016)

Directed by Liza Johnson.
Screenplay written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes.
Starring Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.

Posted by Andrew

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