Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 26 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5):4
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
Of course, Elvis Presley was not seeking the kingdom of heaven in Liza Johnson’s enjoyable comedy based on the famous meeting the singer had with President Nixon. He merely wanted to acquire from the President an appointment as a “Federal Agent-at-Large”—complete with badge. According to the film this arose from Presley’s disgust at seeing on his row of TV sets at Graceland constant scenes of drug abuse and of protestors demonstrating against the Vietnam War. It is December of 1970, and the nation is in turmoil. A patriot who had served in the Army, Elvis grows so upset that he takes out his pistol and blasts away at one of the sets.
Coaxing old friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to leave California and join him on his trip to Washington D.C., he sets into motion his plan. Somehow he has been convinced that he can serve as an undercover agent to infiltrate counter culture groups, thereby exposing them to arrest. He has secured badges from numerous police departments, including that of Memphis.
One of the funniest scenes transpires at the Memphis airport where two Elvis Presley impersonators spot Elvis and Jerry waiting for their plane. They give a sample of their act, never suspecting that the guy they thought to be a fellow enactor was the real deal.
In Washington the two friends drive up to the White House gate at 6:30 a.m., much to the surprise of the guards. Of course, they are turned down for an appointment that day, so Elvis hands the guard a 6-page letter to Nixon that he had written on the red-eye flight to D.C. With his famous name attached, the letter reaches Nixon’s aides Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Even Peters). They pass it along to the Presidential Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) with their endorsement. Finding the note so strange, he scrawls in its margin, “You must be kidding!” But he agrees to pass it along to his Chief.
Elvis, along with Schilling and another aide Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), check in under assumed names in a local motel. Later that day Elvis does get in to see an official of the Bureau of Narcotics, but the hapless agent, not taking the request seriously, does not give him the badge his visitor wants so keenly.
Nixon, the weight of the world on his shoulders, brushes aside the idea that he spend time with a mere entertainer. His aides point out that “The King” has millions of fans, and thus a meeting with their idol would help the President in the polls. Very reluctantly the President agrees, but stipulates that within exactly five minutes of the start of the meeting the aide should come in to announce important business.
Elvis and his two friends run into a roadblock as soon as they gain entrance to the White House (during which Elvis remarks as he looks around, “Looks a little like my place.”). He is forced by the Secret Service agent to turn over the guns he carries on his body and to unwrap the gift he has brought for Nixon. The gift box also contains a gun, a valuable World War 2 Colt 45 handgun. Made to leave all of the guns behind, the three are ushered into a waiting room, where the friends learn to their sorrow that only their boss will be admitted to the Oval Office.
Much of what we see transpiring in the inner sanctum is the product of Liza Johnson’s creative imagination, although she did have access to the notes that “Bud” Krough took during the session. (The film does not show him as present with the famous pair, but he apparently was there in the background. His notes do mention Presley’s antipathy toward the Beatles whom the singer regarded as anti-American.) The infamous tape recording system in the Oval Office was in place, but the President would not yet recording every conversation until the following year. We do know that the two became so engaged with each other that the President waved off his aide when he interrupted exactly five minutes later. The exchange lasted well beyond an hour, after which at Presley’s request, his two companions are ushered in to meet the President and receive token gifts for themselves and their wives.
Kevin Spacey (an actor certainly familiar with a set of the Oval Office!) captures well the mannerisms of Nixon, even though his face is not a match. His hunched shoulders and stiff walk, the gruff speech, all convince us this is the President. And Michael Shannon also delightfully impersonates the King of Rock and Roll—even if he never sings.
The film sheds an interesting light on our most vilified President, showing that he was able to bend and connect with someone far removed from his normal world. That Presley shared his deeply conservative views no doubt was a factor, but not the only one. According to the National Archives the photo of Nixon shaking hands with Presley is their most requested photo. Thus this film serves well as the story behind the picture.
You can link onto all of the documents in the film at: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/elvis/elnix.html
Another fun site is “For Elvis Fans Only” where there are numerous photos, videos, and a copy of the letter. http://nixon.elvispresley.com.au/.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of VP.